Shame and healing social engagement. What a topic, one that is close to my heart and well known to my innards, my gut, my nervous system. How about you?
Enjoy the video, or read the blog below ❤️
Shame is a complex emotion with a simple definition. One definition is that it’s “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety”. For me the feeling of it is a kind of queasy, sick, debilitating paralyzed, self judging, self rejecting, feeling... and it's awful and I know it quite well. I have often described myself as “a shame baby”, in other words it is a negative emotion that I know well; where other people have different kinds of issues... maybe major anxiety, or major rage, or depression.
So I know well the feeling of it… a kind of toxic chemical flood into the whole body, that numbs, hurts and paralyses. And no, it's not a nice feeling at all. And so for any of you who know this feeling, please say hi via email or in the comment section – share how this feels for you.
So shame has some curious characteristics. For one, it often occurs in relation to other humans – in other words we project the feeling out – what do THEY think of me, or how they judge me? But as with most bad feelings, the parts that are arising usually are trying to resolve negative situations or developmental wounding. You could say the part that is triggering is trying to create a positive outcome, which is that it's essentially trying to help define what are seen as positive choices and create boundaries around what is morally or socially right for us. It is trying to get us to heal.this is certainly true for me.
But it can really be the result of deep trauma, and so shame can have been in our makeup for as long as we remember being alive… and we’ll have no memory of how it got there.
So in other words, we're going to have regular upwellings of feelings that are based on traumas that one doesn't even remember. And it’s like there’s a node (schema) of core trauma (or traumas) lurking inside us, unseen, unhealed and unmet, and that original wounding then projects out onto the life we’re living right now.
So there's an element of hiding in it. This first element is that original developmental trauma very often hides from us, lurking deep inside. We’ve formed protective layers, parts and stories over it in order to cope with everyday life. For some, these original traumas happen before we have memories so they remain seemingly impenetrable and unfindable, lost in the mist of our youngest years…
And this hiding continues into our adult life. When we carry shame we often want to hide from the collective or from the group. With shame, we might even want to hide the fact that we’re feeling shame!
And usually with shame there's a sense of comparing oneself and one's actions with our standards and not meeting them, but also potentially being judged by their collective or some kind of ideal behavior. And always found wanting.
The essence of it is self-punishment, and while it often contains truth – acknowledgement of wrong or poor behavior – it is often also creating fictional stories inside us that lead to a sense of worthlessness, powerlessness and self-loathing, and feeling small, exposed and wanting to hide. And from an evolutionary point of view, the emotion can be useful to help the “tribe” stay together, and to condition tribe members to behave according to generally accepted rules. So when one tribe member goes out of line, it can feel mortally wounding to be shamed. As if our survival depends on being acceptable to the tribe.
And the real history is that originally we have been shamed and hurt by others, often care givers in early life… but rather than pointing fingers out at them or the collective, it turns inwards. We take on the shaming done to us, and then shame ourselves.
A finer detail in this is that often there's an internal imagined audience out there that are judging and rejecting us. So we might imagine influential family members, friends, or people we know in our working or social communities speaking about us, judging us and rejecting us.
And from an academic point of view, shame is seen as a really powerful emotion that can make us feel defective or unacceptable, even damaged beyond repair. One of the phrases that can appear is that “I am broken”.
And so, just to be clear on the difference between shame and guilt, with shame, it's like your whole self is wrong. But if you’re feeling guilty, it's probably just about a single one behavior or thing you did or said. It's interesting to note that the research is beginning to show that shame also affects men frequently differently from women. It said that men with shame-based low self-esteem tend to act OUT through anger or violent behavior towards others (or actually just to any kind of sort of acting OUT behavior), where women tend to more often act IN – by turning their feelings inwards, hating themselves and being self-destructive. So women are much more likely to turn self-loathing in on their own bodies.
So in my work around self-expression, shame is a huge factor in shutting down voices, and I think it really contributes to a sense of social anxiety. Because as soon as there is shame, there’s an accompanying dysregulation in the social engagement nervous system of the person, so, technically speaking, there's some kind of dysregulation in the ventral vagal system, which amongst other things governs the feeling of safety around other humans. And from a neurophysiological point of view, an ideal state for us is to be ‘in our ventral vagal’ nervous system. The accompanying feelings include the ones we all want to feel… Safety, compassion, connection and trust with other human beings. And when it gets dysregulated and disrupted, it's very difficult for us to “come home” especially around each other. So the social engagement system is seen as one of our highest Nervous System states… and it can be the most elusive, if we carry trauma inside us.
And there’s a horrible irony with shame: being interconnected makes us feel safe. Our shame makes us retreat, hide and disconnect from others. So shame perpetuates isolation and unsafety. It’s a setup for pain… for perpetuating itself and the accompanying feelings of being judged or outcast, or less than, or too much.
And the internal shaming we feel frequently operates in one of two ways. It can either just be “I'm horrible, I'm terrible” - so the self pointing at the self. But it can also frequently play out inside us using other people's eyes. So we kind of externalize the judgment, to THEM, “they don't like me”. “They think I am an awful person”. And that's a kind of a way of at least projecting out this horrible feeling. The feeling still gets felt, but is perhaps less owned, because the truth is, this is how we feel about ourselves.
For those that externalise it – into a feeling like they don’t like me, one of the routes towards healing is really beginning to acknowledge that it's actually parts inside me that feel that way. So to fully meet and acknowledge the feelings and parts instead of avoiding them. And if we can go back and find the original wounding or conditioning where we actually took on this negative perception of self, then healing can potentially take place. For heavy duty shame, I recommend getting help.
Yeah, just to repeat what the feeling of shame for me is like, it's like a kind of paralyzed, queasy, numb, horrible feeling... really low. And it also feels depressive, self-judging, self-doubting, and self-loathing.
And technically you could say it's often accompanied by a parasympathetic freeze state in the nervous system. It's like a really dead numb state, and the body may be full of numbing opioids, and sometimes also full of adrenaline at the same time.
And when we're like this, it can really result in a kind of overriding feeling of “I can't”, and “I can't do anything” and “I don't want to go out”, “I don't want to be seen”. “I don't want to speak” and “I definitely don't want to be seen on the internet”. And so it's super not fun and if you regularly feel like this, my heart is with you. And if you don’t, be kind to people who do!
As with all nervous system states and conditioned states, with a little help we can heal and self-regulate back towards social engagement. I personally like tools like TRE®, tapping, and seeing a quality therapist. And in a safe therapy container, just talking about it switches on the social engagement nervous system and gives us an opportunity to safely express and explore and let out the shame. And then through the connection and safe container of the therapy sessions we can gradually begin to work through the deeper wounds at play here. And I’ve said it before and will say it again – weekly 1 on 1s may be needed for a year or years to get to the deep wounds, or schemas, and to release what lies stuck there. And it’s good if the therapist has trauma releasing tools.
And shame comes in so many forms… so an example of that shame might be shame about our bodies where we picture other people rejecting us, or imagining our partners rejecting, judging or leaving us. Of course for the most part it's just our own self-perception. And as we know, we also learn these self-perceptions from our culture. So you could say, shame is usually the result of both old, original developmental trauma, and also layers of cultural conditioning about how I should be and how I should behave. Another example might be for children who receive very strong conditioning about keeping their mouth shut and being “seen but not heard”. As adults, being in social gatherings can be very triggering and can feel like a tug of war between shut-down, silenced and socially anxious parts, and other parts of themselves that want to be seen, accepted and express themselves freely. And frequently when there is subtle or gross abuse trauma in this mix, there is shame attached to our voice, and in situations like these shame will be pouring through our body; but we’re so used to it, we might put a mask on, pretend everything is fine, while armageddon is happening down below.
And so personally for me, I think it's a part of our life's work to decondition ourselves from these wounds, thoughts and belief systems. And with our voices, we can start at the behavioral level, learning to find safety speaking and expressing ourselves.
And as an aside, the online world is an interesting place to begin to find freedom expressing ourselves... Beyond shame. It's very curious to me, having watched my own and others online behavior, how clearly shame plays such a big role in online behavior and whether it’s safe to have a voice and be ourselves online.
And it might express as a fear of posting and expressing ourselves, and being our quirky, unique selves. Because if we let ourselves loose even a little bit, a chorus of judgment takes place inside before posting and gets worse after posting.
So even at a subtle level we can feel shame and regret and close down and wish we hadn't done that. And then some of us delete our posts.
And so looking at one's online behavior is a great way to get a sense for how much shame is sitting in one's social regulation, interpersonal, interconnected space. And then it's worth doing the work to begin to decondition that fear and shame, perhaps to say “Actually, I give myself permission to have a voice”. Maybe even “Actually, I don't give a shit what “they” think, actually, it's more important for me to speak and begin to have a voice than it is for me to hide. Actually, I've got gifts that I want to share with the world”.
So shame has a direct effect on our sense of personal power in the world. In other words, the ability to say “this is who I am and this is what I do, or what I stand for”. I must also add that one’s sense of playfulness and fun can also be shut down in this shamed, bound-up conditioning and trauma patterning.
So let's get busy friends. Let's do the work of overcoming painful long-term patterns of being overwhelmed by shame. Let's get un-shamed and have some more fun, and express ourselves more powerfully in the world and express our gifts. Hope you enjoyed this or found it interesting. Let me know how this felt for you. It certainly stirred things inside as I wrote it.
Thanks for watching and reading.