‘Empathy’s the antidote to shame. The two most powerful words when we are in a struggle: me too.” Brene Brown
I hear some inspiring stories that lift the spirit, and are testament to human resourcefulness and resilience. Jennifer a pleasant woman in her fifties had endured multiple and constant abuse and neglect throughout her childhood. Despite this she had got on with her life, achieving part time work, and was able to enjoy crafts and described pride in maintaining her house. Given extensive trust issues she did not develop friendships until her forties but was now enjoying these and the occasional excursions. She had an appreciation of what she could do, and although intimate relationships were challenging she accepted this. Jennifer explained her adult life had been going along well until a trigger had set off old wounds, and she was feeling overwhelmed. The trigger had been a rejection and then followed intense feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and shame. She was not depressed but highly distressed and just wanted to move on.
Our emotions have potential to be adaptive or maladaptive. Shame is the most personal of emotions as it gets to the core of our view of self worth. We can all recall incidents in childhood where we did or said something and experienced the effect of shame; feeling unworthy, wanting to retreat and hide. When shame is adaptive it allows us to understand and learn, provides information that moves us forward. The healthy shame feelings would give us an organising ‘yes that’s it’ message. So, when you felt helpful shame, it would have assisted you to maintain connections and deepen your understanding of others, would protect your privacy, and build your sense of values and life choices. But when unhealthy shame strikes, we get stuck on it, and it can be debilitating. Such a feeling keeps surfacing, and disorganises. It feels part of the person. The result of such a feeling is,’ I am unlovable’ or ‘I am bad.’
Such enduring feelings have been linked to depression, anxiety and patterns of behaviour such as withdrawal, bullying, promiscuity, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and difficulty establishing relationships.
Feelings such as maladaptive shame or aloneness are often the result of childhood trauma such as abuse and neglect. It is also an emotional state many experience.
There are several evidence based psychological approaches that are helpful to manage these maladaptive feelings. One model is based on identifying, regulating and changing the emotion.
The first step is to recognise if an emotion is helpful to us or not. When feelings such as loneliness or shame endure, and disorganise us, they are likely to be unhelpful. By defining these states as something to change we start to understand they are ‘part’ of what we feel. They do not define who we are. The next step is to recognise any pattern that set the maladaptive feeling off e.g. criticism, rejection, failing. Such experiences are part of life’s slings and arrows. Working out these patterns helps to narrow down contexts that are triggers. A further skill is to regulate the distressing feelings when they arise. This includes learning to slow the body down, to relax and breathe through the feeling. The ability to’ ride the wave’ and allow the feelings to pass is an empowering learning experience. The final stage is the ability to access or develop a feeling that challenges the maladaptive feeling.
Clinical studies show that one way to change a feeling is with another feeling. And there is now good evidence confirming the healing benefits of self-compassion. Self-compassion moderates our reactions, is an antidote to self-criticism, and a trigger for the release of brain chemicals that increase feelings of trust, calm, safety and connectedness. One way to achieve the feeling of self-compassion is to think of someone in your life who radiates compassion. Imagine that compassionate ‘voice’ and stance, and shift that focus towards you. The aim is to treat you with the kindness, love and support that a compassionate person would.
To return to Jennifer. She had gradually worked through these stages, was able to identify her ‘loneliness and shaming‘ voice, and to regulate the tension when this emotion arose.
Jennifer internalised her ‘loneliness and shame’ feeling as a small child, alone, afraid and lost. She was also able to recall a caring relative in her early childhood who was firm but kind, and found a sense of peace when sharing this memory. Accessing this compassionate voice Jennifer reached out to the frightened girl and embraced her and reported, ” She smiled back, there was colour in her face, the ‘me’ was safe.”
Jennifer also described feelings of relief and joy, “I had given away my right that I count… now I count.”