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.

This Thing That We’ve Been Calling Masculinity

For a few weeks, I’ve been wanting to write about what I’ve been seeing and experiencing lately amongst males. What happened tonight in the election helped me to make it happen. I know most of us have little room to take in anything more right now, so just hang with me for a quick personal story, and I’ll get to the bigger picture.

I recently had an experience that surprised me by surprising me. I went to the birthday party of a friend who is new enough that I didn’t know most of her other friends. Late in the evening, upon leaving a drink with one of her male friends while I walked outside, I realized that I felt completely safe to do so. Not unchecked safe. Full presence and awareness safe. While feeling safe with men is not at all new to me (and while that’s not been without plenty of challenges, I feel very grateful for that), somehow this stood out to me. This man and the others were strangers. And yet I had absolutely no doubt that they were safe. I know that that is a packed statement in itself, because plenty of people have been hurt after being sure that they were safe. That crossed my mind, too. But I could feel it viscerally, and potently. And it was awesome. And as I said, I was surprised. Feeling that safe in vulnerability with strangers was new to me. And through that novel experience, I realized how often I’d actually felt unsafe with strangers.

If you’d asked me a few weeks ago how safe I feel around people I don’t know, I’d have said, “Quite.” And that’s how it goes. It is safe to assume that the fish has not yet discovered water. Only when I felt a change did I realize what I’d been swimming in. This is what happens when change occurs. We become aware of what was before.

I felt terribly grateful that evening. I was teary. It was like a big ol’ game of trust and I felt caught and held perfectly. This is the current state of gender relations, I thought, if only one newly sprouted branch of it. For me, feeling safe in a group of strangers is hugely about how much more complexity we have invited into gender notions.

As I began to write tonight, I reflected on my post about the hashtag movement “#MasculinitySoFragile.” What I realized more than ever before is that it is. It is fragile. As fragile as any other construct that is too rigid and too small.

But we have been rapidly expanding what masculinity (and femininity) means. We’ve been dissolving gender norms and expectations. This work goes back decades, but in the last several years, we seem to have almost caught up with reality. People of all genders have become far more vocal about sexism than ever before. Conversations turn more quickly to internalized -isms and the need for intersectionality than ever before.

But even when the oppressive force is gone (or is becoming defunct), we are left with the way we organized ourselves around it. Absolutely everyone can relate to this, regardless of privilege. At some point in our lives, we all experience another person’s attempt to restrict our self-expression. When that experience comes from a caregiver or other powerful entity, we organize ourselves around it in order to tolerate and survive it. So even when it’s removed, we find ourselves struggling with the same limits. Therapy revolves around this dynamic. We interrupt ourselves where others interrupted us. The work is to become conscious of those patterns, so that we have some choice in the matter. We re-organize in a way that’s uniquely suited to us, and then we constantly practice, refine or restructure it to keep to stay calibrated with our evolving needs.

As we move out of this old gender binary, look who appears: all the ickiest parts of toxic masculinity wrapped up in one individual. And only a narcissist could be such a caricature of it: no self, all artificial structure. A monster created by male socialization. Thinking about Frankenstein’s monster? Yep, Shelley knew her shit. It’s a miserable situation, and the monster is as plagued by it as the rest of us. Don’t ever think he’s not. He can still cause harm, yes. But remembering that he’s trapped inside his own tight constraints is a necessary awareness for maintaining empathy and clarity.

Ultimately, this can help us move forward. By exaggerating the character, we can see clearly its severe limitations. He is an example of what not to be, and of the dangers of trying to crush oneself into a tiny little concept. Seeing what not to do is a great way to learn boundaries when we are testing them by growing and expanding. With progress always comes regression. That’s how we integrate the progress. We move way outside of the emerging paradigm so that we can really see it before we feel able to comfortably step into it.

Even amidst my disbelief about what was happening, when I heard, “That’s it. Donald Trump is the President of the United States,” I thought, “Wow. That makes sense.” I don’t want it to. But that’s where we are. As a group, we can’t move too much faster than our slowest members. And therein lies much of our collective work. When you feel willing and able, help others to feel safe enough to speed up a bit. When they show you glimmers of authenticity, reflect it to them. And remind them that it’s ok to be afraid. We all struggle with unfolding.

So as I sit here reading and feeling about the outcome of this election, I take great comfort in the fact that I know very few people like Donald Trump. We are progressing. We don’t produce nearly as many “Trumps” as we used to. But sometimes there’s still too much fear to integrate what we’ve learned. And so we have before us the final stand of toxic masculinity before we blow it out the god damn airlock. It is the beginning of the very end of this deplorable construct. If you are already taking concrete steps towards abolishing the fear of self-expression, keep it up. Steady your hand at your post and help to provide the safe space for this country-sized tantrum. Be firm and also be warm. Work towards more critical thinking and more emotional intelligence. Constantly do your own healing work. Inspire it in others. And at every possible junction, teach it to children. Help to make it safe for people to express themselves. And in the meantime, soak up the presence of those around you with whom you feel safe and like yourself.

show your bleeding heart: A Guest Post from Tulasi Adeva

Tulasi Adeva is a therapeutic mentor and embodiment facilitator who lives and works in beautiful Hanalei, Hawaii.

I had the honor of working with her at the Oakland Center for Holistic Counseling. She has a fiercely open and clear heart, and I was often speechless when I would hear her talk about the way she knows people and the world. She is often able to articulate what is deep down inside of us all, and this article is no exception. She wrote this beautiful, perfect piece in response to what happened in Orlando this week, and I have the honor of sharing with you here. This applies to everything, and I believe it’s terribly important to realize how vital this work is. I challenge you to allow her words into your body. Try them on and see what shifts, or what would need to.

“maybe vulnerability is the greatest key we hold to our collective healing. not vulnerability held close like in a poker game we are trying to win, but vulnerability revealed, vulnerability laid out for those around us to see.

this is not an easy thing. as humans we grow good at being guarded. we learn all too well how to hold our emotional cards close in. we learn to navigate the hazardous terrain of relationships by defending and protecting. the brain is so sophisticated and complex it manages our whole strategy in such a way that it feels like a second skin, like this is just the way it is.

but when you hold a baby in your hands, a fresh being newly breathing air, you know that our essential nature is vulnerability. and with vulnerability comes unconditional love. with vulnerability comes our capacity to trust. with vulnerability comes our capacity to fully be all the way here.

because let’s be real. this being alive is VULNERABLE.

we may try to hide away, and defend against, in order to protect ourselves, but that protection cuts us off from what we truly want… to be seen, acknowledged, appreciated, LOVED.

we are a complex system of beliefs and cultural conditioning. we are a store house of generational trauma and instinctual survival. amidst all this we are evolving at such a rapid rate, individually and collectively, that we don’t entirely know how to keep up. we are boiling inside.

with our deep desire. with our own fears. with confusion. with pain. with rage. with longing. with heartache. with a calling for more.

without a firm grip on our inner compass, a deep connection to our own heart, a tender acknowledgement of our own vulnerability we get locked into a stance of defense. we resist what is.

we want to hold on to what we know, we want to have it all figured out so we can avoid risk (vulnerability) and play it safe.

part of my teaching is about feeling what’s here to be felt. going all the way in. this is not an easy task, often it feels like the pain or discomfort will never end. but inevitably on the other side we meet our vulnerability, our tenderness, our hearts. and there we come to know ourselves more completely.

there is a teaching in relationship work to take 100% responsibility for what is going on in a relationship. in akido when practicing with another the resistance you feel, is your own. both of these teachings are pointing us toward self responsibility, personal accountability, toward a recognition that how we move and what we choose to do impacts the space and outcome of what unfolds.

but as david whyte says we have to take the close in step. before we can take 100% responsibility, before we can identify the perceived resistance in another as our own we have to know ourselves. i mean really get to know ourselves. look in the mirror and look deep. what are we hiding, what have we tucked away, what don’t we want others to know and see?

our pain is the catalyst for our creative expansion if we have the courage to face it and the willingness to see what’s there to be seen. when we meet and greet our own vulnerability it opens up space, it opens up compassion, it opens up a renewed relationship with responsibility – to ourselves and the world around us.

because no matter how we come in, what we’ve been told, each one of us is a sovereign being with a calling and a purpose for being here at this time. but until we get that, we are flying blind in a selfish charade of pleasure seeking and self protection.

amidst all that the world is reflecting back to us these days it is so easy to be broken hearted– especially if you are in touch with your own tenderness, with your own vulnerability. on countless occasions the intensity i have seen or felt or heard has knocked me to my knees. i’ve wanted to scream but i have kept my mouth shut. i have wanted to cry and so i did behind closed doors. i have wanted to pretend that this was not real and not going on, so i would look the other way and let life go on.
to be a vulnerable human being means to walk through the world with your heart broken open. it means to hold it bleeding in your hands because it’s yours and it’s rhythm matters. to be vulnerable means to be courageous… to move and live with heart. it means we must see ourselves- the light and the dark. it means we acknowledge who we are – divine beings with a greater purose and fallible humans figuring it all out. it means that we appreciate the path before us – the one we have chosen, with all the challenges and triumphs it provides, for this life is our teacher calling us back home to our whole-hearted-ness. it means we bring forward love – for ourselves and for each other, as often as possible, just as we would love that brand new, completely vulnerable baby.

when we are in touch with our own vulnerability and we see it in another, we are opened, connected, changed. today i watched a raw filmed video of a woman speaking the potent truth of something that touched and moved her deeply. she shared the healing of a vulnerability she has been carrying most of her life. and though it was not my story, i felt her in hers. though it was not my story i felt the healing happening. though it was not my story i understood that her healing is my healing for we are never alone and on our own, we are both that baby, we are both vulnerable to all that is unfolding.

lately every sign i see is a call for deepening. a soul dive beneath the surface of the way things seem and the labels and stories we can read. it is a tap root connection to the truth of our own soul. it is a willingness to be vulnerable and speak from that place, to share from that place, to lead from that place.

this world is changing. so rapidly. every day. there is so much more to it than big money and good branding and how many likes your posts receive. it is a life or death battle for the earth, for humanity, for heart. and the only way i can see to get through to the other side is to be all in. take your heart out in your hands and show it to the world.

what if we were courageous enough to be raw and real? what if we no longer held ourselves back? what if we practiced compassion for ourselves and each other, even when we disagree, because we remember and honor vulnerability?

i am still learning. i am practicing. i am afraid that you will hurt me, not see me, not care. i am afraid you will say it doesn’t matter, that i don’t matter and that i shouldn’t share. i fumble all the time. i do not have it all figured out. but when i tend to that still small voice within, i know i am 100% responsible for all of this and my voice matters, my heart wants to be felt. i am letting all of us down when i don’t let the truth of own vulnerability come out.

and so i offer it to you. i offer you a seat here with me, in a wide open space where all that needs to be said can be said. where all that you feel is a welcome expression of the truth of your experience, where all that i feel is a welcome expression of mine. and in this field i know we will meet and see each other again for the first time and remember that we are one. we are tender, vulnerable, open hearted love.

here we will change the world.”

Find Tulasi and her incredible work here.

Originally posted by Tulasi Adeva on June 14th, 2016. Source: http://www.rockyourjuicylife.com/inspire/2016/6/14/show-your-bleeding-heart. Reposted with permission from Tulasi Adeva.