Shame is a feeling. It is different from guilt. Shame is not about something you have done that is wrong. It is a gut feeling deep down that says you are wrong, defective, inadequate or not enough. The problem with shame is that it shuts down social engagement and pushes you past the instinct to fight or flee. Beyond fight and flight is freeze and on the other side of freeze, is the potential for immobilizing shame.
Guilt vs Shame
There is a common misconception that shame is about poor behaviour, something you did that was wrong. Actually, guilt says you did something wrong. Guilt can be productive. It can inspire you to move toward repair. Shame, however, does not address the behaviour. It attacks your essence and it is oppressive.
Shame happens when you have been exposed to a deeply disturbing situation. Often, first experiences of shame occur in the presence of an attachment figure. Perhaps someone you loved or who was older, “wiser”, and had authority over you.
Often that someone had the intention to “teach” something to the younger you. Rather than addressing your behaviour, they may have mistakenly given you the message that you were bad, you were stupid, you were thoughtless, you were wrong… This kind of message lands as solid rejection.
Shame can be traumatic
For young children, the fear of being rejected or abandoned by an attachment figure can be overwhelming. Abandonment can actually be a life or death situation for children given the absolute dependence that human children have on their adults. Thus, for children repeated shaming can be a traumatic experience.
Of course, shame can happen at the hands of individuals you are not attached to as well. The threat, however, has the same effect. If not, “This person could kill me,” then, “My attachment figure could abandon me if they knew about the horror of this experience.” Regardless of who initiates shame, the physiological response is intensely mortifying. Thus, shame can push the nervous system past fight or flight and into immobilization or death feigning.
According to Dr Stephen Porges, whose research intersects psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, shame has the same physiological effect as a life threat. Shame can elicit a freeze response. You have likely heard about the fight/flight/freeze response of the Autonomic Nervous System. Dr Porges has discovered further details about the activation of the Autonomic Nervous system which he referred to as Poly Vagal Theory.
Poly Vagal Theory states that there are 3 categories of the Autonomic State. Previous understanding held only 2 categories: Parasympathetic/rest/recuperate and Sympathetic/fight/flight. Here are Poly Vagal Theory’s 3 Autonomic states
1. Social engagement
The instinct for social engagement is controlled by 3% of the Vagus Nerve. This 3% is highly myelinated. This means it has super fast connectivity. It enervates the eyes, ears, facial muscles and heart.
Information from the world comes in through the eyes and ears. Quick evaluations/association are perceived by the Vagus nerve. Porges calls nerve perception, neuroception. The neuroception of the Vagus Nerve can create physiological reactions in the body without first communicating to the brain. The information travels directly from one nerve to another without entering the brain/cognitive awareness. This means there is no conscious awareness of the communication.
The neuroception of the myelinated Vagus specializes in identifying social cues such as facial expression and tone of voice. The associations are sent directly to the heart. The response of the heart is to speed up or relax. The behaviour of the heart alerts the rest of the human organism as to the probable safety of engaging in social interaction. Again, this is all unconscious, body-based experience.
The job of the myelinated vagus is to pick up body language and social cues about safety. When possible, the myelinated vagus downregulates defensiveness so that you can connect with other people. The ability to feel connected to others requires that you feel calm, look at people, engage in physical contact without fear and generally feel safe enough to do so.
Social engagement becomes awkward and ineffective when you are in a mindset of defensiveness. Thus, the myelinated 3% of the Vagus nerve is promoting social engagement when it downregulates your defensiveness. It does this by sending signals of safety to the heart. The heart then influences the relaxation response, Parasympathetic activation.
2. Sympathetic Fight or Flight
The Sympathetic aspect of the Autonomic Nervous System is the instinct to defend. If circumstances indicate that social engagement is not appropriate i.e. the heart is racing, the Sympathetic Nervous System takes over. It maintains the fast heart rate, sends blood out of organs into the limbs preparing you to fight or flee and increases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
On a physiological level fight and flight are similar. On an emotional level, however, fight is equated with feelings of rage and anger while flight, is more about anxiety and fear. In addition, the coping response of fight is an approach response while avoidance is the coping response in flight.
Either way, the job of the Sympathetic Nervous System is to activate defensive responses in order to ensure safety and survival.
In nature, the freeze response can be effective. If the predator believes it has killed its prey, it may go get its family to feed. Then, the prey can escape. In human circumstances, the freeze response intends to decrease the chance of further enraging the attacker.
The freeze response is believed to originate from both the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System. Freeze is like hitting the gas and the break at the same time. The Sympathetic Nervous System brings in heightened sensory awareness to discern safety. The Parasympathetic puts a brake on physical activity creating a tonic freeze. In addition to the freeze symptoms, the Parasympathetic sends out hormones to increase pain tolerance and to alter the sense of time place and reality.
Freezing is an adaptive response.
Freezing helps you to be less present for the trauma. When the freeze response is engaged, it increases tolerance for pain and decreases awareness.
Sometimes immobility can cause dissociation. Dissociation allows you to mentally and physically escape some of the traumatic experience. During the freeze response, a person might blackout, check out and go somewhere else (out of body experience) or, focus intensely on something else (the details of the wallpaper, the smell in the air…).
Re-entering the Cognitive Realm
When immobility wears off and survival has been ensured the cognitive mind comes back online. The job of the cognitive mind is to find logic and account for actions. When this happens, shame can be elicited to explain the void created by the instinctive response.
Given that the physiological freeze response can help you escape some of the pain and possibly the memory of the traumatic experience, it is a very valid choice for some experiences. However, not knowing this or defensively invalidating this information leaves only an unexplained instinctive experience.
Since no conscious thought goes into instinct, there is no “paper trail”, no thoughts to apply logic to, just a void. The cognitive mind wants to fill the blank space created by instinct with reason. Thus, the void sets the stage for cognitive dissonance and judgement to set in.
The freeze response can elicit shame
A feeling of mental discomfort and confusion occurs in cognitive dissonance. In an attempt to relieve discomfort, the defensive response is called back to service. Unfortunately, this defence is attacking your instincts, what feels like your essence. This is where the, “You are no good, you are defective,” negative attribution toward the self or, shaming comes from. It is an attempt to make sense out of the void that occurred during the frozen state.
It is important to note that the negative attributions resulting from the cognitive void are not necessarily truths or facts. They are made up out of the dissonance. They are a fabrication.
When fabrication induces shame, the internal attack waged against you is akin to autoimmune disease where the body attacks and damages its own tissues. It is a mistaken attack on the self. The cognitive mind looking for a reason, recalls criticism and insults waged against you by others in the past and uses them against you in the present.
The harm of this attack is evidenced in the way that shame damages your ability to make connections with yourself and others.
Shame affects your Ability to Connect with Self and Others
All humans want to experience the feeling of being connected with others and ourselves. When we are born into this world we rely on connections with our caregivers to ensure that we are fed, held and otherwise taken care of. As we grow, social connection helps us to feel safe and to know who we are.
When shame shuts down social engagement by making you believe that you are unworthy, it interferes with your ability to feel safe reaching for a connection. When attempting to connect with others, shame makes it difficult to engage in eye contact. Without eye contact, you can’t read people and they can’t read you. Furthermore, solitude becomes unbearable due to negative self-talk elicited by the belief that you are unworthy or not enough.
Having thwarted the desire to connect with self and others, shame leaves you isolated and robbed of the social feedback required to bring you back to a state of rest. Thus, shame not only creates a heightened state of defence it also reinforces the immobility response and prevents you from completing the cycle of defence.
Resolution of the Defence Cycle Heals Trauma
According to the author and Master Somatic Therapist Peter Levine, resolution of the defence cycle helps trauma survivors overcome the challenges that come from being stuck in fight/flight or freeze.
The defence cycle begins at the calm place then, awareness of danger moves you into fight/flight or freeze. Once the attack is over, there is a period of shaking (you’ve seen animals shake it off) and finally, after the shaking, the cycle resolves back at the calm place.
If the defensive cycle is not completed, your nervous system can get stuck in a repetitive loop of fear and defence. That defensive glitch can leave you feeling constantly ready to fight, fearful, defensive, continually wanting to flee circumstances or feeling helpless and immobile.
A place to begin
If you think you may be stuck in a loop of defensive responses that are not resolving, reading this far is already a step toward resolution. Knowing that the freeze response is adaptive brings logic to the cognitive dissonance. Now you can start to acknowledge that your response was not defective, stupid, weak or whatever negative attributions you may have made.
Furthermore, Levine recommends that a safe place to begin resolving trauma that leads to shame is to find safe ways to practice moving through the entire defence cycle. The initial steps include using your imagination to daydream about a stressful circumstance that is not really related to you.
When creating the circumstance be sure to go through the full defence cycle – rest, alarm, fight or flight, freeze, shaking it off and returning to rest. Below is an example.
Safely Imagining the Defence Cycle
Imagine a rabbit that is happily grazing in a field. See the rabbit hopping around and sniffing at various plants and flowers. Notice how the light is reflecting on the rabbit’s fur. Take a moment to feel the calmness and safety of the scene.
Keep watching as the rabbit hears a twig break in the nearby wooded area. The rabbit immediately orients itself by looking around and discerning the level of danger. You’ve likely seen this scene on a National Geographic film. This is the part where intense music coincides with the reveal of a lunging cougar. The rabbit has no chance to defend against the cougar. Instinctively it’s body loads up adrenaline and it begins running and darting through bushes and over rocks. The cougar is close on its tail, however, in this case, the rabbit wins by a small margin. It finds a burrow in the ground to hide in. The rabbit is frozen for a moment in the burrow. It is listening, its breath gets really slow and quiet, it’s heart is thumping in its chest.
Eventually, the cougar gets bored and walks away. Deep in the shelter, the rabbit comes out of the frozen state. It goes through a short period of shaking which is followed by relief. Soon the rabbit emerges from the hole and goes back to the relaxation of grazing in the sun. Look blackberries!
Apply the experience
The idea is to build awareness regarding the felt sense of moving through the entire cycle. Once you have practised the cycle a few times, you may start to notice the sensations and feelings that occur as you move in and out of various stages of defence in your day to day life. Perhaps you will develop awareness of places that you become stuck in the cycle.
Please keep in mind that this exercise is merely a starting place. Resolution of trauma and healing the associated shame will surely require more than visualizing a rabbit chase. You may want to seek out a somatic-based therapist that you can share your awareness with.