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 Brené 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.

A Lesson from #MeToo: Intellectual vs. Somatic Knowing

We do ourselves a great disservice when we devalue the power of feelings. The somatic landscape holds much of the information that we seek, and yet so much of how we live prevents us from knowing that. A client once reflected in session, “I used to hate having emotions. Now I know how to use them.” I could have jumped with joy. Country, let’s make this the norm.

When I saw Caitlin Flanagan’s response to what “Grace” shared about her date with Aziz Ansari, I felt nauseous. She made a lot of damaging comments, but the one I’m taking on here is her belief that Grace could have simply left. It is a brutal misunderstanding of the power of feelings, and I cringe knowing that anyone read it and agreed. From Grace’s account, we can pretty safely hypothesize that she was stuck in a freeze response. When neither fighting nor running away are perceived as possible, our parasympathetic nervous system offers up this third option. In extreme cases, it can look like playing dead. It can also look like playing along. Now whether or not that’s actually what happened for Grace, no one can say except her. We can, however, use her story to look at what has become a common encounter.

The #MeToo Movement has been extraordinary for shedding light on the pervasive epidemic of unsafe sexual behavior. We’re finally voicing this deep collective trauma and with each new story, we’re made increasingly aware of the need to understand what brought us here and how to move forward in a way that is healthier for everyone. This is a psychotherapeutic process like any other; it’s just on a very grand scale. So we will be well on our way to healing if we can learn and enact the wisdom offered to us through the psychotherapeutic process. Most relevant here: the need for embodied wisdom.

Historically, we tend to get stuck on deciding who’s responsible for an unpleasant sexual encounter. What therapy teaches us is to be interested primarily in understanding and navigating the interpersonal dynamics involved. Even in the most objectively black and white circumstances, the ability to say whose fault something was is only helpful in bringing us to the next steps: what each person can do moving forward. So rather than looking at fault, we ought to be looking to answer more specific questions like, “Why couldn’t Grace leave?” and, “Why couldn’t Aziz notice her cues?”

It’s very fortunate that #MeToo is bringing us into exploration of these gray areas of human interactions. It’s where some of the most important work can happen, and that’s exactly why it’s so challenging. What’s happening in response to what Grace shared should make very clear how impossible it is for us to quickly lay blame somewhere and move on. The subsequent conversations it has provoked have been a loop of “he should have…” and “she should have…” Often both things are true. But the complexity does not end there, as there is a myriad of reasons that brought each of them- and any two people- to this interaction wherein one person left feeling violated. So it’s time we distinguish between intellectual and somatic understanding.

“Somatic” means whole body. The word is used as a way to point to the entirety of an experience rather than to artificially separate what’s happening in someone’s body from what’s happening in their brain. The two are inextricably linked, and that’s extremely important to understand particularly as it relates to sex. Our bodies will tell us right where we are with things, which is vital to pay attention to, because knowing something intellectually is not the end of the process. You can think of it like learning to play a musical instrument. Studying theory is helpful, but you won’t be able to really play until you’ve practiced.

We’ve been more acutely onto this knowledge over the last decade or so. We’re realizing that intellectual insight is limited. It does not automatically translate to being able to do anything with the information. We can understand something, but not believe it. We can know why something is happening, but feel unable to prevent or change it. We can even fully believe something in thought while our body strongly disagrees. Embodied knowing simply takes further work.

When so many people are upset by a topic this disturbing, one of the greatest challenges is finding our common goal in the work. Fortunately, this one is quite clear: we all want safe and enjoyable experiences with others, especially when it comes to sex. Knowing that is an important part of the process, because we now get to address what’s in the way of getting there. Our current roadblock: we’re lousy at attending to feelings.

The experience of feeling unable to do something is, in the moment, no different that being physically unable to do it. This awareness is built nicely into all fields of psychotherapy in the form of verbiage for states like post-traumatic stress, which is a response to a real or perceived threat of injury or death. Fortunately, this knowledge has been sneaking into popular culture in various ways. We’ve finally begun to consider the “placebo effect” a legitimate effect, for instance. And indeed it is. If it has an impact, it’s an effect.

But historically we have been very poor at acknowledging emotions as real, legitimate, and unpreventable. It’s that last one that seems to give us the most trouble, because we can learn to make choices that make particular emotions less likely to surface in certain situations. But this control is limited, and it’s limited even more so than our ability to control something like hunger. With hunger we can eat regularly, eat enough, eat well, carry snacks, and so on. But with emotions, we have far less control because emotions most often surface in response to other people, who are ultimately out of our control. You can be well rested, well fed, and in a great mood and fear will still surface when you nearly hit someone who walks in front of your car. So our greatest power comes in our ability to respond to our own emotions appropriately. And no matter the context, an appropriate response means one that comes from a place of compassion and openness. These are the qualities that allow us to listen to, learn from, and make use of our feelings. Once we can do this for ourselves, we can begin to extend the practice to others.

Now think about that myriad of reasons that, even without knowing their unique backgrounds, allow us to guess at why Grace and Aziz would find themselves in such a confusing and painful exchange. To name what I’m sure is far too few:

  • People, especially females, are routinely objectified. Objects are things that we can interact with as we please. The impact we have on them is irrelevant, and so we often don’t even consider it.
  • We fail to teach people, especially males, how to interact with their emotions. We will even use shame to suppress them. Since emotions do not long tolerate being ignored, they find ways to get their needs met surreptitiously or violently.
  • The above factors create a very dangerous combination. Objects are handy sources for getting our needs met, since they require nothing of us. We don’t have to admit our feelings to them in order for our needs to be fulfilled. So it confuses, scares, and sometimes angers us when an object suddenly speaks up about their subjective experience.
  • We teach women that sex won’t be all that enjoyable, and to be polite about that. This was actually written in pamphlets given to women at the turn of the 20th century. That’s only a few generations back for a lot of us, and so its remnants remain strong.
  • We are persistently reinforced with the notion that there is a way to successfully manipulate our interactions with others, and that most of it has to do with pursuing and distancing. If we pull back a little, the other person will come pursue us. If we lean in too much, they might distance. They’re distancing themselves because they want to be pursued. You can’t be explicit about pulling back or you’ll hurt their feelings. Most plot lines depend on our belief that we should be indirect. The next time you’re watching a television show, imagine what would happen to the trajectory of the story if just one person were able to share what they were feeling.

It is no surprise then that we have ended up here where one person wasn’t trusting their feelings and the other wasn’t even noticing them. So whose fault was it? Everyone’s. It is collectively our fault. We train our females to resist their urges to fight or flee, and we train our males to fight no matter the circumstances. Most of us contribute to this even though we consciously try not to. It’s my fault for not speaking up last week when someone used the term “man cold.” It’s the fault of every catcaller. It’s the fault of every person who agreed to distribute that pamphlet to our great-grandmothers. It’s the fault of the schools that fail to teach sex ed. It’s the fault of everyone who’s ever said, “You’re just emotional.” We must attend to all of this if we want healthier interactions. Fortunately, we’re already amidst a gender revolution, and I suspect that one of its many gifts will be to draw us away from rigid roles that train us out of our natural states of being.

I hope that any of us could find our way to relating to either person in an interaction like Grace and Aziz’. If any of it seems easy, I encourage you to recognize how you’re devaluing your abilities or taking them for granted. The ability to leave, speak up explicitly, or accurately read bodily cues are all strengths. If they’re strengths you have, figure out for yourself how that came to be, and then help others to develop these qualities. If these aren’t strengths of yours, learn to listen to the subtle cues of your body, and then learn to do so with others.

It is returning to embodiment that brings us health. We need our sensations and emotions in addition to our thoughts in order to understand what’s happening in the moment and to act accordingly.

Further Reading and Resources

Books:
Healing Sex by Staci Haines
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
The Sex and Pleasure Book by Carol Queen with Shar Rednour

Research:

http://usabp.org/research/somatic-oriented-journals/

https://traumahealing.org/resources/

http://journalofpositivesexuality.org/archive/