Interview With June Price Tangney About Shame in the Therapy Hour

In this video, recorded at the 2011 APA Convention in Washington, DC, author June Price Tangney talks about her book, Shame in the Therapy Hour. (4 minutes, 56 seconds)


Interviewer [Male Voice]: In your new book, Shame in the Therapy Hour, you talk about the role of shame in the therapeutic process. Could you say a little bit about that?

June Tangney: Yes. Although people rarely mention shame during the therapy hour, it's ubiquitous in the therapy room. Clients bring shame into the therapy hour because we know that people who are prone to shame are also prone to a range of psychological symptoms, so they tend to — the people who present for psychotherapy tend to be shame-prone to begin with. And then the therapy situation itself is shame-evoking. Clients come to us to talk about their failures in life, the difficulties they've had in dealing with their emotions and their day-to-day life, and so that can be very shame-evoking.

Shame can have a really dramatic impact on the therapeutic process because one thing that shame often does is prompt people to want to hide, to escape, to essentially want to sink into the floor and disappear. So it's not unusual for clients who have been shamed to, for example, miss a psychotherapy appointment or drop out of therapy. We also know that there's a tight link between shame and anger and blaming other people, and so shame can also disrupt the psychotherapy process by causing clients to become angry with their therapist for reasons that they often don't understand.

Interviewer: What is the difference between shame and guilt?

June Tangney: Well, people feel shame and guilt for all manner of failures and transgressions, but the difference is when people feel shame, they feel badly about themselves; when people feel guilt, they feel badly about a specific behavior. So this shameful feeling about the self is associated with a sense of shrinking, of being small, with a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness and with a sense of being exposed.

Feelings of guilt about a specific behavior are more closely linked to a sense of tension and remorse and regret over the bad thing done, and feelings of guilt, this kind of tension and remorse and regret, seems to prompt reparative action, confessing, apologizing, undoing the harm that was done rather than hiding and denying.

Interviewer: Does shame play a stronger role in some psychological disorders as compared to others?

June Tangney: Well it seems to be implicated in quite a range of different disorders: in depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorders, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder. I think the one place that we haven't found shame to be a major issue is working with psychopaths.

Interviewer: Is shame a variable in the therapy of all patients with all problems?

June Tangney: I think with the exception of psychopaths, shame is lurking in the background of the therapy hour for virtually every client, and also for therapists themselves.

Interviewer: Looking back at your training, do you wish you received more information about shame as you were preparing as a therapist?

June Tangney: Absolutely, I can't — I had wonderful supervision during my training at UCLA and subsequently at Springfield hospital center. I cannot recall a single time that a supervisor raised the issue of shame — shame in my clients or shame in myself as a beginning therapist, and I wish that that had been part of the conversation.

Interviewer: What sparked your interest in shame in the first place?

June Tangney: I was raised Catholic and I remember very clearly, as a young girl, one of the nuns telling us about our soul being this wonderful, pristine, perfectly white, like a book with pages and that every time we sin, we get a big black blot on one of those pages. And the sense was that although God would forgive us for our sins, we'd never lose that big black blot. And I had somewhat of a sense that I wanted to be a good person and that good people suffer a lot for their sins, that they really, really feel badly and that the better the person you are, the worse you're going to feel. And that's not a very attractive way of thinking about morality and it really got me thinking about whether there were alternatives, whether there were good ways and bad ways to feel bad about our transgressions and errors.