Clinical Reflections

Shame, energy, and holding contrasts: Moving from “Do it!” to “We can do it”


When considering shame as a consequence of relational trauma (Schore, 2001), therapists often think in terms of beliefs, implicit and/or explicit, about self in relation to others. These might include such beliefs as “I am… inferior, defective, damaged, worthless, unwanted, unlovable, etc.” Traumatic, shame states, or shame states for short (Benau, 2022; Herman, 2006, 2012), are chronic, mind/body states that manifest as recurrent or intransigent thoughts/beliefs, feelings or emotions, as well as bodily states that incorporate characteristic physical sensations, muscle tensions, facial expressions, body postures, and repeated patterns of the movement or inhibition of energy flow.

In this article, I describe two psychotherapy sessions of my work with “Lara”, a survivor of relational trauma. Following verbatim transcripts, these sessions show how Lara’s shame state was transformed by working primarily with her energetic experience of being “pushed” and “pulled”. These opposing energy forces reflected Lara’s reactions to demands, mostly internal, to be extremely productive and successful at work and in relationships with family and friends. This article demonstrates how working with contrasting energies facilitated processing of shame-based traumatic reactions and memory reconsolidation (Ecker et al, 2012).

“Lara”: Energetically transforming shame states

At the time of the two sessions described below, I had worked with Lara, a woman in her late 50s, for over five years. Lara had been married for 30 years, with two young adult sons, and a very successful career in her chosen profession. There was no abuse nor neglect in Lara’s developmental history. Still, I viewed her as a survivor of relational trauma (RT) (Schore, 2001), given a father who repeatedly communicated, with anger and contempt, that she never did enough to please him, nor was as smart and competent as her older sister. Additionally, Lara’s mother absented herself from the family’s emotional life, and never protected Lara from her father’s verbal and sometimes physical attacks (e.g., slaps). For the reader interested in learning more about Lara, when we worked earlier with her somatic experience of the intergenerational transmission of relational trauma, see Benau (2020).

Lara recently began a job affording her much more independence than she had in the past. In the session preceding Session 1, Lara and I worked to help her become “comfortable with being uncomfortable”, i.e., with the financial unknowns of an independent practice. As I listened to Lara at the start of Session 1, a phrase kept coming to mind: “Outside, not inside”. While Lara shared she was doing “Okay”, her initial focus was not on herself but rather on what she could or should do for others, including her sons, husband, and family friends. Lara had a mind/body habit, one that we had worked with many times over the years, of fearing that if she did not please others by doing exactly as they wished, she would end up utterly alone and unloved. While Lara knew this was a legacy of her RT, and that it was not “rational” based upon her lived experience with loved ones, she was still left with considerable, chronic anxiety that often pressed her into urgent, somewhat compulsive action, in a desperate attempt to stave off anticipated abandonment.

In contrast, Lara’s drive “to do” was paired with her feeling chronically burdened and resentful of loved ones’ “expectations”, even when those expectations were self-imposed. Having been down this path many times, I quickly realized that if I did not help Lara shift focus from outside to inside, we could get stuck on her conflicts around feeling obligated to take care of others.

After about five minutes of listening to Lara, I said, “I’m hearing a lot about others—kids, family, and friends, all outside of you, and what you must to do for them. Of course, it’s not a bad thing to do for others, as your father taught you, but it sounds like things are out of whack. How would you be with going inside, and noticing what you’re feeling in your body, now?” While verbally sophisticated, Lara had also shown, following years of therapy and a daily meditation practice, to be quite capable of tracking her somatic experience.

In what follows, “Pt.” refers to Lara, and “Th.” to me, her therapist. The quotations are taken from verbatim transcripts. Within brackets [ ] I offer my commentary and reflections on the therapy process.

Lara closed her eyes, and after a minute opened them and spoke:

Pt: “I feel frazzled, like a top spinning, and boring around.”

Th: “Where in your body do you feel most frazzled?’

Pt: “In my heart, a vibration, and anxious energy.”

Th: “Within frazzled, a top spinning, is energy. Energy is neither good nor bad. Go inside and bring attention to this energy, and discover whatever you discover. You don’t need to say anything until you’re ready.”

[When working somatically, I do not typically focus on a patient’s energy (Feinstein, 2022) More often, I help patients orient toward muscle tensions and micromovements preceding adaptive action (Ogden et al, 2006). However, I did here for several reasons, including: Laura mentioned energy; energy may originate deep within subcortical brain structures, specifically the brainstem (Corrigan & Christie-Sands, 2020); and because energy is morally neutral and precedes valuing or devaluing associated with shame.]

Lara closed her eyes, and after another minute or two opened them:

Pt: “There’s a pull and a push.”

Th: “Both pull and push are forms of energy. Imagine one is to one side of you, and one to the other. Turn toward one, and then the other, spending as much time as you wish with each. See what you can learn from energy. When you’re ready, come back to your center and open your eyes.”

[This way of working with contrasts or so-called polarities, that I call my triptych method (Benau, 2019), is inspired by the three panel paintings popular during the Renaissance. It is informed by my understanding of working with contrasts (Benau, 2009), and therapeutic memory reconsolidation (Ecker et al, 2012), where apparent opposites can be held experientially, first sequentially (“push” and “pull”) and then simultaneously embodied, in order to discover what I call a “creative third” (Benau, 2009, p. 96). The creative third is not at a midpoint “between” contrasts. Rather, it transcends duality. If you imagine contrasts on a two-dimensional line, with one polarity to the far right and one to the far left, the creative third is situated above the line, living within a three-dimension reality.]

After another minute or two of Lara going inside and observing energies of pull and push, she opened her eyes:

Pt: “With ‘pull’, the message is ‘There’s a lot to do. You need to start attacking it now!’ This energy is going toward people in my house, and elsewhere. ‘Push’ responds, ‘Yes, you have stuff to do. Let’s think about it. What do you need to have for you, to feel better, more grounded?’”

[Trusting the inner wisdom of Lara’s contrasting energies, I responded:]

Th: “Yes, there’s energy of ‘attack’ (pull) and ‘plan’ (push), the latter including your grounding. How do you hold both?”

Pt: “Energetically, when I hold both, I calm down. Slow down, take a breath. I have a plan, that includes, that starts with… taking care of me. Focusing the energy. Harness it in a helpful fashion…. I need to be in a solid, grounded place. Act methodically…. It doesn’t have to be done today.”

Th: “With pull, the energy is ‘Attack, I have to do it now!’ What do you know about that energy?”

[Having worked with Lara for several years, I knew anything that sounded like “Just calm down” would fail, whether delivered by a family member, especially Lara’s husband, or her own, inner voice. Invariably, “calm down” incited a resistant part of Lara, previously identified as 12-years-old. My question was intended to help Lara understand and access both energies, rather than pit one against the other.]

Pt: “Failure. If I don’t do it now, I will miss an opportunity that I could’ve had, and it’ll go away. What did I lose?”

[“Failure”, for Lara and many other patients, is code for shame, where “I failed” means and is experienced as “I’m a failure” (Benau, 2022). I also thought “missing an opportunity” felt far too tame for what I was hearing, whereas “attack” and “failure” better captured the intensity and press of vehement emotions (Janet, 1889). Following Janet (Van der Hart & Rydberg, 2019), I believed “pull” also reflected a reaction to vehement emotions that was one consequence of Lara’s RT and dissociation, specifically, “If I don’t do, do, do, I will end up all alone and unloved!” This exclamatory sentence conveyed Lara’s post-facto, verbal narrative that we used to describe her dissociative, unbidden, somatic reactivity. Given my thinking, I said:]

Th: “’Missing an opportunity’ sounds a bit tame, to me. I’m hearing an urgency, ‘If it goes away, then….!!”

[This sentence completion method is derived from Coherence Therapy (Ecker et al, 2012), and is designed to capture the emotional intensity of “limbic language” (p. 50).]

Pt: “I must go, go, go! If I miss an opportunity I’m a failure. No good. I’ll explode. Nothing is gonna work!… It reminds me of when I was a girl, 6, and my father repeatedly slapped me or threatened to slap me, because I’m not doing what I was told! I’d rebel inside, ‘I’m not gonna do it!’”

[Thinking of Lara’s resistance in the face of being slapped and humiliated by her father, previously identified as a 12-year-old part fiercely protecting her more vulnerable, humiliated six-year-old, I decided to help Lara re-experience the split-second moment before her various defenses were activated, i.e., complying yet feeling burdened, ashamed, resentful, and rebellious. The following question was based upon my understanding of trauma processing using The Comprehensive Resource Model (CRM) (Schwarz et al, 2017) and Deep Brain Reorienting (DBR) (Corrigan & Christie-Sands, 2020). I assume many trauma therapists working experientially and somatically would intervene similarly:]

Th: “Go inside, and see if you can feel into the split-second moment when you first see your mother’s slap coming, but before you react.”

Pt: “Confusion.”

Th: “Yes, and even before confusion, slap and….”

Pt: “Shock. Here it comes!”

Th: “What follows shock and confusion?”

Pt: “Anger, oppositionality. ‘I fucked up again, and she’s taking away my autonomy!’ I have to go against her.”

Th: “As you hold all of that, the pull of ‘just do it’, the push of ‘plan’, your mom’s threat if you didn’t ‘do it!’, the shock, confusion, shame, anger, and oppositionality, what comes up for you.”

[In retrospect, I believe I asked Lara to hold experientially too much at the same time. It would have been more helpful if I focused our shared attention on her “shock” reaction preceding traumatic reactivity, and associated with deep brain structures within the brainstem (Corrigan & Christie-Sands, 2020). Still, after a long pause, Lara responded:]

Pt: “We can do it!”

Th: “The Nike commercial’s motto is ‘Just do it’. Now you have your own motto, that you can return to as often as you need to, this week: ‘We can do it’.”

Lara loved her motto, leaving Session 1 feeling calmer, clearer, and stronger in her resolve to include care for herself when choosing to do for others. Two weeks later, at our next session (Session 2), Lara shared that she and her husband were getting along well, and that she was worrying much less about whether her business venture would succeed. Lara said she felt “proud”, as contrasted with a shameful failure, for having the courage to pursue work that felt most true to herself, now.

Whenever new, positive ways of being and relating show up for a patient, I intentionally bring our shared attention to that experience in order to strengthen and embody the patient’s transforming self in statu nascendi. When I asked Lara to describe how “proud” felt in her body, she said “giddiness” and “effervescent” with energy pulsing throughout; “lighter”, less burdened and weighed down in her shoulders; “more possible” and hopeful, in her expanding chest; and “happy”, all because “I bet on myself”. When I asked Lara to go inside again, and notice how she felt in her body when I slowly repeated each attribute, she said, “Feels very true… Brings a smile to my face.”

Lara’s feeling “proud” included, following my shame/pride typology, the adaptive pride of accomplishment and achievement, what I call “good enough me pride” (Benau, 2022, p. 40). This pride subtype reflects a relatively short-lived, emotional process. In addition, Lara’s “giddiness” and “effervescence” point toward an enduring mind/body state, intermittently accessed, that I call “pro-being pride” (Benau, 2022, p. 50). The term “pro-being pride” comes from the word origin of “proud” (Proud, word origin). “Proud” is derived from the Latinate ‘‘prodesse’’, where ‘‘prod’’ means ‘‘for’’ and ‘‘esse’’ translates as “to be” or, in my view, a person’s “essence” or ‘‘being’’. Pro-being pride is an enlivened mind/body state, where the person delights in being their unique, authentic self, in relationship with themselves, others, and the world. I believe pro-being pride is the most powerful antidote to shame states (Benau, 2022, pp. 50-56).

Later in Session 2, Lara said she felt she had “shed this weight”, i.e., the burden of responsibility and the fear of loss and abandonment, combined with “some sadness wrapped in relief”, as she “dropped off fear and anxiety”. She then added, almost as an afterthought, that she felt “weird”. I told Lara how pleased I was that she felt “weird”. I explained that in my experience, patients who report feeling “weird” are often on the verge of discovering a new way of being, both unfamiliar and familiar, drawing them closer to their authentic self.

Lara’s “dropping off fear and anxiety” gave me an image, that I shared, of her leaving fear and anxiety (personified) out on a dusty road. Lara remarked that she had the same image. (This “in-sync-ness” is always a good sign of patient-therapist somatic-emotional-relational co-attunement). I next shared my image of an old 1950s desert gas station. Lara, in turn, saw herself “driving a convertible, her adult self at the wheel (as contrasted with her past experience of very young parts driving the vehicle), wind in her hair, feeling “I’m in control… It’s possible… I believe in myself.”


When Lara arrived at “We can do it”, I sensed immediately she had discovered her creative third (Benau, 2009). While in her teens Lara fought back reflexively against her mother’s expectations, in the end she always complied. “We” meant Lara was now more able to think from her more integrated, embodied, adult wisdom about loved ones’ and their needs. Lara could better care for her six-year self who desperately longed to be loved and accepted, and appreciate and accompany her 12-year-old self who rebelled and demanded, internally, that she be treated with respect rather than devalued, humiliated, and deprived of age-appropriate autonomy.

These two sessions showed that working with energies that precede the formation of beliefs, feelings, and actions, from the perspective of contrasts and discovering creative thirds, can help patients like Lara connect with their deeper, contemporary wisdom. My work is informed by somatic approaches to psychotherapy (Feinstein, 2022; Ogden et al, 2006), as well as an understanding of therapeutic memory reconsolidation (MR) (Ecker et al, 2012). In this work, MR was a byproduct of Lara’s energetically experiencing, first sequentially and then at the same time, archaic, traumatic and humiliating ways of being, alongside emergent, safe, and even exciting ways of relating to herself and others.

Specifically, Lara was guided to experience two energetic contrasts: “I must go, go, go!” [to escape my father’s verbal and physical attacks], or else “I [will] miss an opportunity [and be] a failure”. This was contrasted with Lara mindfully developing a “plan” of action, from a safe, grounded, present-day place. From energy “swirling” in the grips of fear, anxiety and shame, to proud possibility and happiness, toward pro-being pride, Lara found her way—and a cool convertible, too!


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“Proud” word origin. Accessed January 25, 2021.

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Schwarz, L., Corrigan, F., Hull, A., & Raju, R. (2017). The Comprehensive Resource Model: Effective therapeutic techniques for the healing of complex trauma. New York: Routledge.

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