September 30, 2021 Mark Wilhelm
“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” — Brené Brown
At some point in our lives, most of us have had an experience where we felt we were not good enough in some way. As a result, just about all of us know what it’s like to feel shame.
Shame is a complicated emotion. We are first able to experience shame around the age of three, and it can feel somewhat different from person to person. However, shame is always about hiding some part of ourselves from other people. When we feel ashamed about something, we are desperate to keep it hidden from others, because we fear that they will judge us negatively for it. In fact, the word “shame” is believed to come from an old Indo-European word meaning “to cover.”
Not only is shame upsetting to experience, but deep-seated shame can create a variety of challenges in a person’s life. Shame can make relationships with other people difficult, and it can also complicate mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and PTSD. Shame is also deceptive by nature: shame tells us lies about ourselves, and if we believe these lies, they can cloud our judgment, interactions with others, and belief in ourselves.
Shame-informed therapy is a model of care that we are currently integrating into our services here at Cummins. This model is informed by modern neuroscience, which shows how activity in our brains and nervous systems can directly affect our thoughts and emotions. Most importantly, shame-informed therapy offers a pathway for overcoming shame and accepting ourselves for who we are.
Robb Enlow, our Chief Clinical Officer, is currently leading trainings to teach shame-informed therapy to our service providers. In this blog post, he explains how this approach to treatment can provide hope for those who struggle with shame and other related challenges.
Before we can talk specifically about shame and shame-informed therapy, we need to explain a concept known as polyvagal theory.
You’ve probably heard of a phenomenon called the “fight or flight” response. When a human being encounters a threatening person, creature or object, it’s crucial that they determine how to stay safe from this aggressor. In some situations, fighting the aggressor may seem like the best option for maintaining safety, while in others cases, fleeing from the aggressor might seem more practical. This decision often happens quickly, without much conscious thought, and is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system.
However, there is a third response to danger that a person might also choose, which is to stay very still, or “freeze.” Freezing behavior is sometimes an attempt to avoid being seen by an aggressor, which could be the best option if fighting or fleeing doesn’t seem possible, or it may result from an extreme stress response that temporarily “overloads” the nervous system. Freezing behavior can often be observed in children (as well as in animals), and according to polyvagal theory, this reaction is controlled by the dorsal vagus nerve and related dorsal vagal complex.
Fight, flight and freeze are all responses to danger that can increase our chances of survival. However, these responses also limit our ability to perform higher-level thinking and reasoning. When we are fighting, fleeing or freezing in response to a threat, we aren’t wondering if we can appease the threat or considering whether or not it truly is a threat to us. We are simply thinking about survival. In essence, we are physiologically “locked out” of higher-level cognitive processes.
According to polyvagal theory, these higher-level processes are only possible when the ventral vagus nerve and ventral vagal complex are activated. Importantly, this nerve is also associated with social engagement and emotions like joy, compassion, curiosity and mindfulness.
What does polyvagal theory have to do with shame? As it turns out, polyvagal theory does a good job of explaining what happens when someone experiences shame.
“From a neurological standpoint, shame functions like trauma in a lot of ways,” Robb explains. “Trauma and extreme periods of shame, particularly between the ages of three and eight, kind of captivate or capture people into this frozen state.”
As we mentioned above, freezing behavior is common among children who are experiencing emotional distress. Due to their youth and limited life experience, young children are easily overwhelmed by negative feelings and emotions. As Robb explains, frequent activation of the dorsal vagal complex—which triggers the freezing behavior—can lead to trauma and shame that gets carries into adulthood:
“Research shows that between the ages of three and eight, the nervous system is developing at a very quick rate within the child. The nervous system is beginning to make connections in the brain about, ‘This is how I feel when this thing happens.’ It could be as simple as, I look at something disgusting, and I think, ‘Ew, that’s gross!’ while I feel unwell in my body. That feeling relays through my nervous system back to the brain, which I then make meaning of when I say, ‘Oh, that’s gross. Don’t touch that.’ That process continues as people begin to make meaning of the world.
Now, I’m going to make up a story. A three-year-old girl starts to play with older brother’s boys’ toys. Mom says to the three-year-old girl, ‘Little girls don’t play with that. That’s not yours. You play with dolls.’ Or maybe the three-year-old girl says, ‘I don’t want to wear a dress, I want to wear pants.’ And mom says, ‘No, bad! Girls wear dresses, not pants.’ These are just single instances, but think of all the times when people get told ‘no, bad.’ What happens is, when they’re told that, they go into that frozen state. They go into that place where there’s that painful feeling, and it forces people to do one of two things. They either become engulfed by it, or they hide from it, they avoid it.”
When young children are subjected to this kind of criticism, they can easily internalize it. Over time, they might come to believe that they are “bad” or “not good enough.” In many cases, these negative self-beliefs are carried into adulthood, resulting in shame.
Because shame is such an unpleasant emotion, most people develop strategies for avoiding it. Robb explains, “This is how we develop what’s called the ‘masks of shame.’ These essentially become parts of ourselves that get easily triggered by other things that remind us of that past pain. Deep down, we know we don’t want to feel that pain, so we exile that part of ourselves. We try not to go into that frozen state, and instead, we develop cover-ups.”
These masks and cover-ups are related to a fourth kind of response to danger known as “fawning,” or hiding our true self in order to feel safe. Some common masks of shame include self-beliefs like “I’m a bad person,” “I’m not good enough,” “I’m a failure,” “I’m a fraud,” and “I’m unlovable.” These masks may be covered up by behavior like shyness, secret-keeping, lying, co-dependence on others, substance use and addiction, and controlling behavior. But over time, these covering behaviors can actually reinforce the negative self-beliefs they were meant to hide.
All of these masks and corresponding behaviors can be highly destructive to the self and others. However, shame is almost always based on false beliefs. Put more accurately, shame results from false self-beliefs and misunderstandings about the origins of our behavior—behavior that was intended to help us feel safe and avoid our shame.
Robb explains in greater detail:
“I always like to tell people that shame is a lie, because it’s a cover. It’s always about not feeling what, for whatever reason, the body is trying to feel. And so shame will always have the ability to lie to people. It’ll always have the ability to tell people they’re not good enough, and they will even argue it as though it were the truth. It’s not until they recognize the origin of that shame, and how that origin played into their ability to maintain safety, that they realize, ‘OK, that had a reason. That had a purpose. And I can maintain my purpose and my safety without maintaining that behavior, that pattern.”
If we understand the root of shame, then we can understand how to eliminate shame. This is precisely what shame-informed therapy is designed to do.
“If I had to summarize it, you help people connect six things,” Robb says: “Feelings, body sensations, early memories of those feelings and body sensations, what core beliefs have developed in response to those memories, how are you really authentic today, and how can you create a new story to align all those pieces? That’s the process. You help people connect the dots with those things by gently talking about it in a safe environment.”
As we’ve discussed, revisiting or re-living feelings of shame is often an upsetting experience. This can emotionally and physiologically “trigger” someone, sending them into a defensive posture of freezing, fighting, or fleeing. In shame-informed therapy, every effort is taken to keep the ventral vagal complex activated so the individual can cognitively reprocess their shame. Robb explains,
“Part of what any therapist, nurse, teacher, or communicator has to do with other people is co-regulate. If you’re in an ugly frozen state, and the person you’re communicating with is in an ugly frozen state, that’s not a pretty conversation. In fact, sometimes we see that clinically. The parents are frustrated and triggered, the child is screaming and triggered, and neither one of them are communicating effectively with each other. They’re both frozen or very ‘fight or flight,’ and it’s just not working for them. The idea is we get them regulated to the ventral vagal state, or the social engagement state. When people are truly in the social engagement state, that’s when your brain is able to do miraculous things. When you calm down those cover ups, those protective, defensive parts, the rest of your brain is able to access creative, curious things that you’re just not able to access when you’re not in that state.“
According to Robb, the ultimate goal of shame-informed therapy is to help people re-frame the beliefs and behaviors they feel shameful about. This process can help someone see that the behaviors they are ashamed of were always intended to help them feel safe:
“The good part about treatment is you can actually rewrite the way that the brain interprets information. The person who’s always believed, ‘I’m a bad person, I can do nothing right,’ maybe now has a new belief that, ‘OK, maybe I was never bad, maybe that’s what I had to do to get through the horrible trauma that I endured.’ In shame-informed therapy, this is what we call respecting and honoring the survival nature of what people have had to do to feel safe. That’s the key element there. If someone says, ‘Oh, I did that because that must be something I did that’s wrong,’ I’ll challenge that with, ‘No, you did that because that, at the time, is what you had to do to feel safe. And if you didn’t do that, I don’t know if you would be here today.’ And that’s hard for people to come to terms with, that, ‘OK, this very thing that causes me agony is also what’s helped me to establish who I am and feel safe.’ “