The paradox of shame in couple relationships: A Pastoral counselling enquiry

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis aims to increase awareness of the paradox of shame and its function in human relationships so that an enhanced understanding of shame may be integrated with existing pastoral counselling practice. The project recognises the dual nature of shame in its potential to demean and diminish human identity, and conversely its capacity as a source of information to support growth into a healthy and mature identity. The research acknowledges the well-documented, destructive power of shame and then enquires into the alternative and under-researched power of shame to contribute positively to human relationships.
The research project is a multidisciplinary exploration of the nature of shame as a relational emotion. As a pastoral counselling study, a theological thread follows the shame in the Adam and Eve story that is found in Genesis 3. The introductory chapter outlines the expansive topic of shame through public and therapeutic awareness and in human experience; as an emotion in comparison with guilt; as symbolised in language; and as it is presented in various contexts such as clinical practice, pastoral situations, in the biblical story and conversely its absence in theological discourse. The theoretical orientations of the study are set out: pastoral counselling, practical theology, the use of reflective practice and theological reflection all contribute to this project. The literature review is extensive, examining human experience, the polarities of shame, and the disciplinary approaches to shame: psychology, sociology and theology, and the contribution they make to the practice of pastoral relationship counselling.
The human research study forms the middle section of the thesis. This is a qualitative study using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) as its methodology. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with each of four experienced, practising relationship counsellors, who responded to questions about their work with shame in relationship counselling. The analysis of the data established eight themes: learning about shame, signposts to shame, living with shame, working with shame, discerning and responding to shame, the impact of shame in the therapeutic process, the risks and benefits of working with shame, and the paradox of shame. One participant’s data was analysed in the form of a case study because the nature of the data in that interview provided a first-hand view of the operation of shame within a relationship counselling interview.
The last section of the thesis discusses the findings of the human research study in a conversation between the report of the data analysis and the literature, establishing that there was significant correlation between the two bodies of material. The limitations of the study are stated and some suggestions for further research are made. Two related sets of application follow this conversation: theological foundations for shame in pastoral counselling, and working with shame in pastoral relationship counselling practice. A conclusion reflects back over the process of developing the thesis and its importance in my own personal, professional and spiritual understanding and growth. The thesis contends that there is a wider application for an understanding of the role of shame within relationships: in the family, the church, the community and the workplace.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Ministry
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Thomson, Heather, Principal Supervisor
  • Nelson, Alexander, Co-Supervisor
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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