Shame in Relationship with Ourselves and Eachother
Shame is the underlying culprit for self-harming behaviour including cutting, disordered eating, and addiction. These are all ways to change how we feel and take control of our bodyminds.
Emotional dysregulation is at the core of these behaviours. There is a chronic pervasive shame that undergirds the infrastructure of the dysregulated feelings.
To make matters more complicated, these feeling experiences (the substrate of our nervous system) were likely first born at a time in our lives when there were no words and no prefrontal cortex development to put words to mentalize these feelings. So now, when we re-experience these feelings, they are all the more haunting and elusive because we cannot put our finger on the words to unravel their mystery.
Nonjudgmental, Empathic Attuning
What is possible though, is the nonjudgmental, empathic attuning to these feelings and an “other” to help name and put words to the experience.
Someone to feel with and understand the feelings – someone who wasn’t able or present to do so when we first had them as infants.
Uncomfortable (Unbearable) Feelings
When we reprimand or punish someone for these feelings or behaviours, we simply reinforce and shore up the strength of the substrate of shame within us. In fact, anything that generates shame will lead us to want to use these coping mechanisms to ease the uncomfortable (unbearable) feelings.
A Salve for Chronic Shame
This is, in part, why connection has been said to be the antidote to addiction because it is a salve for chronic shame. The emotional attunement of connection is like a soothing balm.
Examples of Shame in Action
Unconscious / Preverbal
The infant seeks the attention of the parent by attempting to make eye contact by vying for the parental eye gaze, cooing, wriggling, and smiling. The parent is not noticing and is distracted and misses this bid for connection. The baby’s physiology shifts into momentary distress and imperceptibly drops into a collapse. The infant stops trying for now. There is a quiet and stillness of small shock at the realization the infant did not/may never get what they need. There is shame in the need itself.
The child runs with abandon towards the parent and presents with excitement the rock they found. Glee and expectant joy and pride beams across their face. The parent is not sharing in this feeling and is preoccupied with their own concerns. The parent’s response does not reflect the face of the child and in that dismisses and casts doubt upon the relevance of the child’s experience. The child’s smile slides and their mouth is downturned as their head and shoulders droop in turn. The pit or dropping sense in the belly and a faraway echo “You’re not enough / You’re too much.”
Conscious / Verbal
The intimate partner makes a bid for connection and affection by turning their body towards the other partner. Warm eye contact, gentle voice, and tentative inquiry. The other partner does not pick up on this bid and leaves them hanging emotionally, distracted by their own busy internal world. The partner who is seeking closeness feels alone, confused, angry, foolish. There is shame in needing and not getting, not being able to get or receive.
They say out loud “Am I not enough?”
The other snaps into focus to the present moment and realize they missed their beloved. The other wants to join and connect to soothe the discomfort of being missed in their partner and turns towards them to reassure, “I am here. You are not too much. You are enough.”
Relief… I’m good enough for now.
I’m Not Enough or I’m Too Much
How many times have you thought or felt, or even said out loud,
“I’m not enough” or I’m too much.”
“How do I know I’m doing it right?”
“How will I know I’m good enough?”
Authority figures, (teachers, parents, any adult to a child) have a sensitive position in the shame building or breaking process. We are in a privileged position to heal or hurt depending on how curious and safe we are.
Kathlyn McHugh RCC, RSW Counselling Practice takes place at the Vitality Clinic in the West Shore Area, close to Victoria BC.
Visit the website at: Home – The Vitality Clinic