How we respond to patients who are feeling, or at risk of feeling shame can make or break a therapeutic relationship. This is about how I try to respond.
Shame is a negative moral judgement about oneself. Unlike guilt or embarrassment where someone thinks that fundamentally they are a reasonable person who has done a bad thing, someone who feels shame thinks that they have done a bad thing because fundamentally, they are a bad person.
Guilt is when, for example, you feel bad that you forgot to call your mum on her birthday, but you might reasonably conclude that this doesn’t make you a bad person and so you decide to make up for it and call her the next day. Shame is when you conclude that you are (and have quite likely always been) a hopeless son or daughter who is always forgetting the important things in life and feel too despondent even to call the next day.
We should suspect shame in the following situations. A patient misses an appointment because they are afraid of being judged on the basis of their blood tests . Another fails to attend a follow-up appointment after having disclosed a history of child sexual abuse. The mother who took her child to an A&E department takes them to a different department the next day with the same feverish symptoms in order to avoid the clinician who said they were time-wasting the day before.
Situations where patients blame themselves for their perceived failure to take responsibility either for themselves or their dependents can arouse shame. Healthcare professionals have, in addition to their clinical authority, a moral authority and consciously (or more often not) and intentionally (or not) pass moral judgement on their patients’ behaviour if they do not acknowledge shame and self-blame.