Shame Overload

Shame fills the little hollow cavity that vulnerability creates.
-Kate Sheehan

Kate is my therapist. She said this to me in session when I was struggling to make sense of an emotional reaction I’d had. I think it’s a perfect articulation of the somatic experience of shame, and it was especially useful to me in that moment, because I hadn’t yet become aware that shame is what I was feeling. And that’s the thing about shame. It is so good at its job that you don’t even know it’s there. I think that’s exactly what’s happening in our country right now. It’s an ugly process the way it’s being held within our current political structure, but people are bringing it into the therapy room and it tends to go pretty damn well there. So let’s look at why and how, and get moving on resolving this on the cultural level.

Let’s begin by giving shame a face so that we can keep our eyes right on it, which is what shame both hates and needs. Shame is extreme discomfort caused by the feeling of not being ok with oneself. This discomfort stems from a chasm between how a person is seeing themselves or believing themselves to be seen, and how they believe they are supposed to be according to their own standards or societal ones. I often go to the words of BrenĂ© Brown for guidance here, and her distinction between guilt and shame is particularly handy: where guilt is “I did something bad,” shame is, “I am bad.” Somatically-speaking, it is the desire to hide when feeling more than a tolerable amount of discomfort with being seen. When we feel shame, we are often motivated to hide at any cost- sometimes literally, sometimes behind thoughts and words. Most painful and most insidious is that shame can be so good at getting us to hide that we will sometimes hide from ourselves. Typing #metoo into the town hall that is social media has been a way to bring ourselves back out into the light, and into the light we are bringing the shame that forced us into darkness. That affords us an incredible opportunity to face and dispel toxicity. But the gravity around shame is strong.

Allow me to disclaim right here that this article does not contain anything graphic, but I am going to discuss various aspects of sexual trauma and that alone can evoke difficult sensations and emotions. Please go slow in reading, and use your intuition to take care of yourself in what ever way you might need. What I’ll be focused on here is the role shame is playing within the #MeToo Movement and how to manage shame outside of the therapy setting, because we are struggling like crazy with resolving our collective experience of it. And thank goodness, because we are long, long overdue.

Brown writes that “shame gets it power from being unspeakable.” I would bet that that’s hugely why it’s taken us so long to begin to look at these topics that evoke so much shame, and why we’re having such a wretched time with it. Working with shame means regularly walking the line between tolerability and traumatization. That is exactly why trauma work requires a trained and practiced professional. And yet here we are having to work it out within our social-political structure.

So let’s get into what shame needs. In the therapeutic setting, shame surfaces the most often around intimacy and sexuality, and especially around sexual or physical trauma. This is because the body and its contact with others is the most potent medium through which we experience ourselves and the world. When these experiences go poorly, especially if they go poorly many times and/or are traumatic enough, shame begins to take up space within them. If we are quite young when these difficult or traumatic experiences happen, shame is particularly likely to rush in as a way to protect us. It is, in fact, a penultimate resort- the last stop before dissociating entirely. Sometimes it simply becomes a launching pad into exactly that. We can’t avoid feeling, but we can avoid feeling what we’re feeling. It’s a brilliant mechanism when we have nothing else at our disposal, and the protective part is something to keep. The work is in replacing shame with other forms of protection, so that feeling can become safe again.

In somatic work, we work directly with the experience of being seen in the literal sense. When in the therapy space a client and I are onto shame and its sneaky little game, we begin to look at the nature of our eye contact, at how much space is between us in the room, whether I’m facing them directly or I’m at an angle, what sort of physical contact might be helpful, if any- all these ways in which we can contact each other in the room. What we’re doing is finding out together what’s needed in order to have safe, comfortable, authentic connection, which is the antidote to shame. From there we continue to practice listening and responding to the body as we work to stay in contact with ourselves and each other.

Let’s deepen this a bit further with an example of how shame typically shows up around sexuality, since it’s sexual content we’re dealing with in our cultural struggle right now. In the therapy room, the experience usually goes something like this: a person realizes that naming something sexual is necessary within what we’re exploring (that is in itself a feat to be celebrated since shame will keep us quiet for a long time). This might be a fantasy or desire, a masturbatory habit, a frightening encounter, or even just a casual remark with sexual content. Even if there’s conscious awareness of how it could help, the disclosure might be followed by sensations of shame. Shame needs no invitation from us. So a person might begin to feel things like: a sinking sensation, pressure in the chest, closing one’s eyes, covering the face, feeling cold, feeling numb, feeling floaty or fuzzy, feeling confused. These sensations overlap heavily with the symptoms of dissociation, and that makes sense, right? Shame is about hiding, and dissociating is a very effective way to hide by hiding from what you’re feeling. For that same reason, anger has a high chance of surfacing in this space. It will sometimes surface when shame is being evoked, and sometimes it will rush in to replace the experience of shame after it’s begun to be felt. Feeling angry is especially common for people who were raised not to show any vulnerability. They don’t know what to do the feeling when it surfaces, so they feel angry at whoever or whatever made them aware of feeling it. I find it really helpful to know how common this is, because it helps me to respond appropriately. Let’s spend another moment on that.

One of the aspects of shame that seems to me to be the least understood is that it will surface entirely on its own. It doesn’t need to be drawn out or added to. Because it’s a protective mechanism of the autonomic nervous system, it pops up automatically. So what’s needed most for the experience of shame to become useful is for it to be safe to become vulnerable. I like to think of shame, and guilt too, like an alarm bell; it lets us know that there’s something to pay attention to. The struggle almost always comes in the response. We have to know how to pay the right sort of attention to shame to create a proper holding environment for resolving what ever is being highlighted by the shame. This is exactly what makes it so incredible when a person who has been a victim of sexual violence is able to speak up for themselves despite a high likelihood of being shamed. They are doing for themselves in that moment something that very few of us can do: create the space to be vulnerable, open up our chests, and keep them open by shrouding them with respect, kindness, and acceptance as we are pummeled with anything but.

I wanted to get this piece of writing out and into your inboxes and feeds, so I’m publishing it in its current form. I keep starting into other components of this dynamic we have around shame, but it’s getting too big for one article. I know what that drive is in me, which also motivates me to stop here for now: I want to help you create a safe holding space for yourself right this very moment, so that you can get on with the beautiful experience of being free to feel. But shame can’t be rushed out the door too quickly, or it comes back louder. The work is only done well at a steady pace. So I’ll keep at it and give you more pieces as soon as I am able to paint them, but I’ll leave you with the name of one particular portrait.

It is incredibly important to this process that we end the stigma around mental health, which contributes to the perpetuation of a hierarchical structure. Right now we’re working with an especially ugly version of patriarchy, but any hierarchical structure is problematic unless (or probably even if) we know how to be truly fair with anyone who we encounter. And this is not to diminish the agonizingly harmful effects of Patriarchy in itself; the problem is cyclical. Patriarchy perpetuates mental illness and the failure to address mental illness serves to maintain Patriarchal structures. If you want to dive further into understanding this in its complexity, I highly recommend the writing of James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Laurie Penny. They will show you how necessary it is to understand not just basic but complex principles of psychology and sociology. Low emotional intelligence is a severe hindrance to critical thinking. I happen to believe that emotional intelligence should be a core curriculum subject beginning in the first grade. Naturally there are many people out there teaching children how to notice and make use of their sensations and emotions. Yet what we’re seeing right now is in part an effect of a collectively low ability to address our intrapsychic worlds, so we know that we have to keep working at this. It’s a skill that needs to be more widespread and practiced far earlier in life, so as you move back out into the world after reading this, know that you can have an immediate, steady impact on all of this by being a proponent of mental health literacy.

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