Rachel Roberts

Accessing and Containment of Shame through Art Therapy

This study was a heuristic arts-based exploration into the nature of shame. It explored psychological theory and basic neuroscientific understandings of shame in relation to art, psychological containment and defences. Central to heuristic research is the belief that “the deepest currents of meaning and knowledge take place within the individual through one’s senses, perceptions, beliefs, and judgments1. Accessing meaning requires receptivity to whatever might emerge through the research process. This can be particularly challenging if shame is a significant presence within one’s reflective experience.

Themes of shame’s connection to anger, and cognition, societal expectations that shape instances of shame, and the experience of meta-shame were explored in relation to the artist’s experiences of art-making. The use art as projective tool and container was considered in relation to the creation of boxes as a metaphor for containment. The value of self-reflection and acknowledgement of shadow aspects of self were considered, as well as the challenge of balancing between process and outcome, self-acceptance and complacency.

1 Moustakas, C., 1990. Heuristic Research. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

Shame as Destruction

“Shame is a wound made from the inside, dividing us both from ourselves and others” – Gershen Kaufman

Media: Charcoal, pastels, acrylic, clay
Year: 2019

Initial engagment in research was sparked by metaphorical thinking around a matchbox as a container and centered on thoughts around shame’s connection to anger – what researchers term a shame-rage spiral, in which internal feelings of shame are turned into externalized anger which then prompts further shame. This stage of research explored the impacts of perceiving shame and its connection to anger as destructive elements.

2 Kaufman, G 1996, The Psychology of Shame : Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes, Second Edition, Springer Publishing Company, New York.

Shame as Distortion

Layers of Shame and What Lies Beneath

Media: Acyrlic, paper, masking tape
Year: 2020

If shame has the power to distort our thinking, what lies beneath our shame when we look beyond it? What do we miss when shame clouds our view? Or does shame have the power to guide us to new understandings?


What does it mean to contain shame?

Medium: Clay
Year: 2020

The original conceptualization of containment was developed by Bion3 based on Klein’s concept of projective identification4, who described the concept through the mother-child relationship, in which the mother acts as a ‘container’ for the child who is experiencing intolerable feelings. The child projects such feelings into the mother who then digests them and is able to give them back to the infant to re-introject in a more tolerable format. The process described by Bion has become fundamental to psychotherapy and the client-therapist relationship. Extending the definition of containment, Symington describes it as “the art of embracing emotions, with passion, intensity and warmth”. This stage of research involved the creation of boxes as a metaphor for containment of shame, and exploration of self through art as a projective tool. The two boxes pictured represent two sides of self, one meticulous and with a focus on aesthetics and the other spontaneous and focused on process.

3 Bion, W. (1967). Second Thoughts. Elsevier Science
4 Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. J. Mitchell (ed.) The Selected Melanie Klein. London: Penguin. 1991.
5 Symington, N. (2006). A healing conversation. London: Karnac


Medium: Wooden box, acrylic
Year: 2020

These final two boxes symbolize the artist’s journey to intergration of shame for both its positive and negative qualities. Through the research process, an understanding of the value of embracing shadow aspects of self, as conceptualized by Jung, was gained. The colors represent different elements of self and of shame allowed to be visible outwardly. Had a physical exhibit been possible, this box would have been displayed with the lid propped slightly open, so as to allow those who cared to come close to view the inner self.

Collection of Works

  • An open clay box with its lid resting on one edge of the top

About Rachel

Originally from the United States and having worked in Tokyo, Japan for 6 years as a biostatistician before moving to Derby, England, Rachel’s journey to become an art therapist has been a winding one. Trained in psychodynamic psychotherapy and person-centered counselling, she has worked with adults and adolescents dealing with a broad variety of issues including loss, domestic abuse, depression, bullying, and sexuality.

She is passionate about supporting clients to understand themselves and their emotions through art-making and believes in an integrative approach, with different forms of expression and approaches befitting different clients. Having created, produced and hosted a monthly true storytelling event in Tokyo and seen firsthand the power of catharsis in storytelling, she has continued to explore its use as a therapeutic intervention. Through her second year clinical placement she had the privilege to be supervised by a dramatherapist and take inspiration from a team of creative arts therapists. In the future she hopes to deepen her understanding of other forms of creative art therapies and to take her practice to Japan, a place she considers a home.

Copyright © 2020 Rachel Roberts