Six months ago if you’d asked me if I experienced shame, I would’ve laughed at the suggestion. I’ve accomplished a lot. What would I have to feel shame about? I’m not laughing now.
Several months ago, I left in tears after an “informational interview” with a Director of a large social services agency. I was nervous, but I’d prepared well. I went to ask questions and get his thoughts about possible career directions. I wasn’t asking for a job.
The meeting went horribly. And fast.
I’d ask a question and get back one word answers. Maybe two words. His face was blank. Expressionless.
I fumbled to try and ask different questions. Same kind of response. I started to sweat, my throat went dry, my mind went completely blank. Talk about feeling misunderstood!
At least it was mercifully short. He ushered me out of the office within 15 minutes of arriving. He’d only met with me as a favor to a family friend.
Before I got out of the door, tears welled up and I was in full bawl mode by the time I got to my car. And then, that’s when the criticism got into full force.
How could I have been so stupid? I’d sounded like such an idiot. How had I messed that up so badly?
By the time I got home, I’d given myself a good verbal lashing.
Familiar, by chance, to any of you who are Highly Sensitive Introverts?
But then it dawned on me. My mind flashed on a few video interviews with Allan Schore that I’d watched a week or so before. He’s an amazing researcher and clinician who focuses on the neuroscience of attachment in children during early development (0-5 years).
Schore describes what happens inside the body and the brain, and is interested in the impact of trauma and early relationships on brain development.
I realized that I’d basically fallen into what he and others describe as a shame state. The anger, the verbal lashing? It’s a telltale sign that shame might be afoot.
According to Schore, some people (especially people with trauma histories) dissociate when they hit a rage state, and in the process get cut off from their anger. The anger literally becomes disembodied. It’s too overwhelming.
The anger can’t be felt in the body. It either gets directed out toward others in gossip, criticism, sarcasm, blaming, and demeaning behavior, or it gets “viciously” directed at the self.
That internalized anger might look like perfectionism, people pleasing, the “I’m not good enough” voices. The scary part is that you can be so cut off from your anger that you’re not even aware it’s there. It can also be hard to describe what’s wrong because you can’t pinpoint exactly why you feel the way you do. You feel bad, but the words to explain it just don’t come.
It turns out that research shows anger and shame are associated. And, in fact, so is chronic pain. And inflammation. For someone who’s interested in the mind-body connection, this got my attention.
At one point in the video on shame, Schore quoted Silvan Tomkins, a famous psychologist who studied personality theory, as saying “that although terror strikes, shame strikes more deeply in the body and into the heart of man.”
Schore goes on to describe a shame state as a “collapse of the self,” or an “implosion.” It’s an experience that happens in relationship with another person, and in which you totally lose your sense of self. It disintegrates.
But if shame strikes more deeply into our hearts than terror, why don’t we do anything about it?
Shame is so buried, so covered over that even those of us that traffic in the world of emotions and felt experiences have trouble identifying when shame rears its ugly head. Brene Brown quoted Jungian Analysts who called shame “the swampland of the soul.” It’s murky and mucky, and just plain painful.
My entire being fell into a hole after this meeting–kind of like the hole in Portia Nelson’s poem Autobiography in Five Short Chapters. Shame is the hole in chapter one. I had that awful pained experience of feeling exposed, stupid, and incompetent. The feeling that the world could end right then in that moment.
All of what I know about my skills, my competencies, my capabilities flew out the window. I imploded. My self collapsed in one fifteen minute period. I wasn’t able to write him off as just someone who wouldn’t be helpful, or evaluate what I might have done to elicit that kind of response.
“I” was wrong. Not my behavior, or my strategies for communicating with this Director. Me.
This is shame. Feeling like your whole being is wrong, not enough, or too much, or somehow faulty. As opposed to doing something wrong. Shame is above all, a focus on self.
I’d known the searing feeling of shame for as long as I can remember, but I’d never had a word to describe it before. I know. It’s strange given the work I do – but I think that’s the point, shame is hidden. It stays that way because it’s painful.
The exchange with this Director was what I’m calling, for myself, a shame interaction. But as awful as it was, there was a gift in the experience.
I realized I experience shame deeply, but that there is a very predictable series of events that happen during this implosion. There are also very clear signs I can use as guideposts to become aware that shame may be playing a role in how I’m feeling.
The problem is that shame is so painful, it’s hard to see in ourselves. The other problem is that the anger it generates can come out in such seemingly innocent and innocuous ways that it stays hidden and unconscious.
The anger’s been with me so long that I didn’t even know I was that angry. But then I started listening to myself, listening to my words and the tone in my voice, and listening to the words of people around me.
How many times have you said to yourself (or heard other people say) some version of these:
- “oh, that was stupid.”
- “It doesn’t matter what I do, I’m never good enough.”
- “What an idiot!”
- “If I were just a little bit more like her (or him), then I’d be good.”
- “I just can’t get it right.”
- “Who do you think you are to do that?”
These are just a few of the internalizing statements. I’m sure that between us we could compile several pages’ worth.
Many of these statements or questions don’t seem too bad in the moment, but every one of them holds a barb, a sharp criticism that you’re not good enough, you’re a failure, or you’re not ok in your imperfectness.
This is what makes shame so persnickety and sneaky and awful. You hurt yourself without even knowing you’re doing it. The easiest way I’ve found to start identifying shame is through noticing my anger, since it is a guide-post to potential shame.
For any Highly Sensitive Person and introvert, what allows our bodies and minds to be so attuned to our environment also gives us a leg up on shame. If we can begin to notice the subtle shifts (that don’t feel so subtle in the moment!) inside of us, then we have a lever for changing our experience of shame.
Here are some things I learned about shame:
- When anger is chronic or reactive, it can be a sign of shame. But you might not even be aware of being angry.
- Criticism of others, blaming, gossiping, sarcasm, humiliation or disgust (even in seeming or intended jest) is a possible sign for the anger that masks shame: words, tone of voice, and facial expressions of contempt or disgust.
- Taking the lash out and criticizing one’s self is cause for noticing. It can be like living with an abusive person. Except it’s in your own head, and you can’t get away from it.
- Everyday words matter. What we say to ourselves can get in our way.
Note: Anger is a healthy emotion. It serves an important purpose to warn us when something isn’t right: boundaries are violated, values are not appreciated or are ignored, or we’re not being treated with respect or dignity, etc.
Noticing, building awareness is the tough part. It’s not as easy as it sounds. But it’s also where the change happens.
Here’s an approximation of the progression of stages of a shame interaction that can occur within seconds that I’ve put together from Schore (I’m still working on it, but it’s a start):
Can you relate to feeling any of these? Let us know in the comments!
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