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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

Understanding Shame

Beneath most experiences of suffering is a persistent and ubiquitous shame, a deep belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. I have noticed that shame is an undercurrent in so many of the struggles I observe in myself and my clients. We can feel it together. It distorts perception, warps emotional experience, and can damage relationships with others. Usually, shame lies beyond conscious awareness. But under certain circumstances shame can flood into consciousness, bringing with it, feelings of self-hate and hopelessness. I know I have tried over many years to link my own shame and accompanying despair to some current aspect of my life situation. But the shame is mostly erupting under the surface of things, thriving in the shadows of my past personal history. Current events are just revealing a deep vein of self-rejection that has run through most of my life, most of the time. Coming to some understanding of the insidious nature of shame and finding ways to metabolize and integrate shame I have noticed that there are layers of beliefs, emotions, and body distortions to sort through, as shame often burrows into affects and behaviors that aren’t readily identifiable as shame. Shame can be discovered inside flatness, hopelessness, heartbreak, and rage. It can also be revealed under pride, control, co-dependence, addiction, vanity, perfection, power, dominance, anxiety and spirituality. Feeling alive, finding purpose and meaning, connecting in human relationships can all be diminished by shame. My experience of shame is multidimensional and requires a full-spectrum response that includes experiential approaches. Because shame manifests in patterns of habitual thinking, painful repetitive emotions, bodily contractions and neurobiologically through dysregulating states fight/ flight reactivity, a multidimensional response is necessary. Shame is a unique collection of creative methods of protection and defense devised to defend against environments that were not safe in infancy and youth. Shame is an indication of growing up and developing around people who were incapable of holding and mirroring a child’s unique subjectivity. Parents and/or other adults lacking in empathic attunement, were thus perceived as threatening to survival. Shame is one of our earliest survival strategies, adopted so early in our development that it underlies almost all of our difficult emotions and self-limiting patterns. But it can be worked with.

It must be approached slowly, in an intentional way. It takes time and steady attention to the anxiety that lays over the shame like a fog. Most of what we call anxiety disorders today, may in fact be rooted in issues of shame. Soothing that anxiety with presence, warmth and space can ultimately allow the shame below to receive and respond to the necessarily genuine, almost radical kindness that is so needed. The practice of sitting regularly in simple silence, is one way I've learned to create a consistent sense of safe containment that allows exploration of my own experience of shame. Attending to the churning in my solar plexus, meeting the sense of loss, fear, abandonment and unworthiness I have carried there for so long, I discover tender acceptance emerging. I don't have to manufacture the idea of tenderness or compassion . . . Rather, I become aware that it exists as a natural response to a long ago suffering. I listen carefully and breathe into the tension and resistance. Sometimes images emerge or stories I have told myself about my life are revised or clarified. I notice that my dysregulated sense of nervousness starts to stabilize when I include the shamed one. My body and my psyche experience increasing periods of rest and recovery, so necessary on this human journey.

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