Breaking the Shackles of Shame

Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
The Soul of Shame:
Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves
by Curt Thompson, M.D.

Shame. It is nothing if it is not rooted in our very bodies—from the neuronal wiring of our brains to our entire physical reaction to its activation. It is not merely some abstraction, some "idea" about something that happens in our "mind," wherever and whatever that is. Which is why comprehending its interpersonal neurobiological features can be so helpful along the road to healing from the blight of this primarily emotional—but always embodied—human reaction. What then, does this look like in real life?

First, it is important to consider that the relational and neurobiological task of development in the first two years of life is that of cultivating and living into joy. From the moment we are born, joy at the discovery that others are delighted in our very existence—let alone what we can do for them—is what life is all about. And in terms of our long-range purpose, that never changes.

But somewhere along the way, we have to learn to accept our parents' "No." There we are, minding our own business, toddling over to the begonias, or out into oncoming traffic of any number of types when we hear, "No!" Researchers liken this interchange between our energetic, emotionally heightened exploration and a sudden termination of this by "No!" to what happens to a car with a standard transmission. If our openness and engagement with life at any level is to be equated with the accelerator, then the effect of "No!" is that of the brake. Shame is the neurophysiologic response that takes place if someone slams on the brakes without the use of the clutch. And we all know what happens then: the engine fails.

This is not to imply that "No!" is never appropriate. Far from it. For indeed, all of us need to learn how to self-regulate. The brake, in other words, must at times be applied—sometimes more suddenly than at others. The issue is the application of the clutch. Even if one allows a car with a standard transmission to coast, eventually, unless the clutch is applied, the engine will stall.

When we undergo an encounter with shame, "engine failure" is represented by the collective set of neurophysiologic responses that we are all familiar with: flushing of the face; a hunching of the shoulders and a turning away of the body; a lowered gaze; a decrease in pulse and breathing rate. This is often accompanied by condemning thoughts—mostly of ourselves. It is difficult to think clearly, and we often feel physically paralyzed, as if we literally cannot move. This response could be equated with the notion that "There is something wrong with me." "I am bad." Or "I am not enough."

When Clara presented her mother with the 92% on her math test, her mother asked, "Where is the other eight percent?" For Clara, the joy of having done well, and the anticipation of further joy upon showing it to her mother was quickly replaced with shame, as Clara's "joy circuits" were literally wired together with the neuro-emotional state of shame. Over time, she learned not to allow herself to feel good about her performance, all the while working harder than ever, telling herself she was never working hard enough.

Her mother's words function as a break with no clutch applied. And in the process, Clara's mind became easily dis-integrated. In those moments the sensations, images, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors were disallowed from working as an integrated whole. As this became standard practice for her, she buried her shame in the cloak of becoming the valedictorian of her high school graduating class, all the while believing she just wasn't smart enough. 

However, as we become more aware of these neurobiological responses, we can practice identifying them and changing their course—which changes our lives—through practical exercises. But a key element of any healing process of shame that is sustainable is that it requires our commitment to be known deeply by other people. For one of evil's intentions, for which shame is an effective vector, is to isolate us from any and all sources of love. Love that we only find in God and other people. 

And so it is that as we encounter the love of God and others, not only is our shame healed—our very brains and bodies are changed along the way. Renewing the mind. Healing shame. It's not just a figment of your imagination.