Supervision: working through the loop of shame in learning

Supervision: working through the loop of shame in learning

An acronym was invented in the office recently – ITYS: I told you so.

Juliet Scott, Still Life over Object Relations card AG [5], 2019, silverpoint on acrylic ground

The acronym serves as an office joke now which speaks to that process of discovering something new which we struggle to accept because we think we should have known better, we should have known full stop, we should have seen it coming, we should we should we should…

This awful word ‘should’ and any mantra we have with this word in its heart leaves us feeling embarrassed, humiliated or shamed. It takes away any sense we may have of compassion or empathy to the state of learning, of not-knowing, which we know can be a vulnerable state but for which we – especially those in the so-called ‘helping’ professions – think we should (yes- again this word) have overcome through our progressive education, personal and professional development.

It is a kind of an emotional correctness (a political correctness of the emotions if you like): certain feelings are forbidden, shame being a core one, and we deny feeling it and often articulate other feelings instead of shame – frequently envy or anger on the one hand, or withdrawal and silence on the other hand – to cover up the feeling of shame.

However, what if shame is an integral aspect of any potentially transformative learning process? What if shame is not an affect we can grow out of? Go through a learning process/ activity and not feel? What if we always have the potential for feeling shame when in the presence of the other: who may evaluate and find us inadequate and may have that role as part of their authority over us (e.g. our supervisor)? What if, ultimately, shame is an inner voice that delivers the verdict: that judging voice which says – you should have learnt this by now..?

If the above is valid, then here is a refreshing and transformative idea: that shame, where acknowledged, named and held with affection, is a creative catalyst in that venture into the unknown and it enables true learning.

In the process of supervision, shame plays out most explicitly. Anne Kearns referred to it as one of the ‘deadly sins’ of supervision in her wonderful book for psychotherapeutic supervision of this name. All actors in the system – supervisor, coach, consultant, and client are ‘supposed to know’, they are experts in their fields and of high status. Our identity is tied, in part, to our expertise and role, from which we receive narcissistic gratification.

So, admitting that we need to learn is — at the unconscious level — a shaming realisation that we are less than perfect, less than whole – that there is a lack, a void. Even though we all subscribe to ‘life-long learning’ and ‘continuous professional development’, moving to the ‘learning position’ is an aspiration that often proves difficult and shame of it trips us up in practice: the supervisee, for example, may see the supervisor as an intellectual rival, or as superior; the supervisor may well have an evaluative/teaching/judging role in relation to the supervisee which would exacerbate the feeling, and the supervisee might deal with these feelings by showing off or presenting only complete and successful stories instead of sharing their dilemmas or their difficult feelings in relation to their clients or to themselves. They may even challenge, or even diminish the supervisor, their ‘learning partner’. And the supervisor, too, may become enmeshed in a rivalry, which disguises shame of being ‘lesser than’ with a highly skilled and experienced supervisee.

The consequence of an unacknowledged shame process is to undermine the conditions for a creative encounter: containment, ego-less speculation, reverie, judgement-free observations, and the free-floating dance of ideas and images. The challenge for all actors is to take the risk of feeling the void and the potential for shame, embrace this as part of an inevitable aspect of learning and finally to understand that only through this practice can real learning take place: a new knowledge of oneself and an understanding of what one has truly not known before, perhaps even was unknowable.

Back to ITYS – taking ourselves lightly and a good dose of sense of humour are great antidotes to the unbearable nature of shame feelings. With those, we can work with the idea that shame is an essential part of the process, a necessary precursor to- and an ongoing element in the excitement of learning.

Eliat Aram and James Mackay are Founders and Directors of the Tavistock Institute’s certificate course in Supervision for Coaching and Consultancy.

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