In the play (and movie) Proof, the character Hal asks, "How embarrassing is it if I say last night was wonderful?," to which Catherine responds, "It's only embarrassing if I don't agree." This is a great example of illustrating how shame is relational in nature. As Catherine points out, Hal's question might have been met with a variety of reactions. If Catherine were to respond, for instance, by saying she wishes it hadn't happened, Hal might experience shame about what he said and may even regret that they spent the night together. But Catherine agrees with him, they kiss, and he is elated. Without our even realizing it, our experiences of shame are often closely tied to other people's reactions. The key component to hold onto from this illustration is that one may say or do the exact same thing yet have a completely different self-experience based on the reaction of the other.
From a very early age, children may develop positive or negative self-experiences based on how the people closest to them (parents, siblings, peers, teachers) respond to them. If a young boy is expressing excitement and vitality about what he is doing, for instance, his father might respond by mirroring the boy's enthusiasm and encouraging him to engage in the activity. This could lead to the boy developing a healthy sense of himself and his own agency in the world. If the father, on the other hand, were to respond by telling the boy to knock it off, then the boy is likely to believe that what he was doing displeases his father and is wrong. Often, the reaction of the other is much subtler. In this example, the father might simply give a lukewarm response, ignore the boy, or register discomfort on his face. These more nuanced, less apparent reactions can be incredibly impressionable on a child's sense of self. Even if it is not conscious, the boy might come to learn that expressing his vitality is something to be ashamed of, and this might continue to be confirmed by subsequent, similar experiences. Once the boy reaches adolescence and adulthood, a lifetime of such experiences may have led him to squelch his own excitement and dampen his vitality.
I find that by helping patients understand how closely linked their shame is to the reactions of others, it helps them to shift how they view their past experiences. Others' reactions could lead either to greater acceptance or greater shame about the part of self in question. If a female patient comes to learn that her shame about her appearance is tied to comments and reactions she has gotten from other people throughout her life and to images that our society has held up as an ideal, she might begin to reevaluate her own beliefs and self-perception. In this way, having the awareness of just how powerful is the relational nature of shame, one might be better positioned to change one's own deeply held views and challenge distorted beliefs about oneself.