When I was a little boy, I would run through the fields on my family farm. As I ran, thorns from rose bushes grabbed, pulled, and snagged my clothing. I remember the feeling of running forward while constantly being pulled back by the bush that obstructed my path. Shame is like a loose end that gets caught on everything as we move through life, catching on others’ critiques and situations that bring up our insecurities. Shame keeps so much tucked away and suppressed inside of us, but leaves dangling threads that get caught unexpectedly on the wayward comment or critique, the rose bush in our trail.
Shame leaves us feeling isolated and alone and builds negative reactive cycles as a protection from exposure. This isolation, along with reaction, is the loose end waiting to be reintegrated into healing and connection. I recently heard a teacher give a description of shame as a natural impulse, such as a child expressing an emotion, sensuality, excitement, sexuality, curiosity, or a need; this impulse receives a correction from an authority figure such as a critique, reprimand, physical abuse, judgment, neglect, aggressive response, or abrasive comment. Shame develops when the correction is not followed up with connection, such as a suggestion on how to change the behavior along with a simple hug or embrace. When connection is not provided, the child is left hanging like a loose thread, having to form their own ways of coping with their feelings and emotions. When left to his own devices, a child creates a negative identity based on isolation in order to protect himself from repeated abuse. Some examples of the formation of a negative identity are feelings of not being enough, bad, wrong, dirty, or unlovable. This negative identity stifles the natural impulse of self-expression and leads to self-rejection. A child that has developed an identity around shame is like a thread that has been pulled away from a cloth; when healing shame, we have to learn how to stop pulling this thread through our own self-judgment, learn how to get in touch with our own feelings and reactions in the midst of shame, and learn how to connect to the impulses that were interrupted and unaccepted by others. By doing this we are able to bring this loose end back into a place of acceptance and reduce the reactivity that existed around shameful occurrences.
When I was a teenager, I often felt a sense of weakness in the area of my solar plexus, almost as if the energy had been twisted like a wet shirt being wrung out. Every perceived negative comment or critique added to the tension that I felt in this area. In Energy Medicine, the solar plexus is the 3rd chakra and is called the seat of our mind. This chakra holds the conditioned thoughts and patterned behavior from our family, community, and culture in order to be valued and loved. My mental labels of myself existed as a feeling of weakness that felt engrained in my being. I was hyper vigilant, searching, guarding, and protecting myself from events that made me feel weak. Of course, as I searched for protection I found exactly what I was looking for: situations that confirmed my feelings of shame, tightened my solar plexus, and led to a withdrawn posture out of fear of being seen and hurt. It was an ever-tightening feeling, similar to a strand being pulled and pulled and pulled until the fabric was bunched, tightened, and rippled with resistance. When I heard my teacher talk to the class about love, connection, and guidance as the missing pieces for a child who has experienced shame, it brought clarity to my own process. I learned through watching my father that you had to always be confident, keep your head up, and bulldoze through feelings of shame. From my mother I learned to criticize my feelings, tuck them away, and not ask for help and support. My parents always had the best intentions and loved and cared for me very deeply. However, they taught me the lessons that were engrained in my solar plexus. For me, a feeling of insecurity was followed by a criticism of being too weak or too negative, followed by a portrayal of raising my head and looking tough; one reaction to the initial feeling in the physical body, followed by more reaction to the insecurity. My own reaction was a reflection of how my parents reacted to me in the past as I continued the cycle of shame. For me, Intervention is the key to healing shame. Intervention is a way of reestablishing connection in the midst of disconnection. In doing so, we shed the limitations of those that were not able to help us connect and we create our own forms of love and acceptance. One way of intervening is to listen to our thoughts and conclusions around an experience that causes shame.
An example of this listening recently showed up for me: I felt insecure while watching a group of men working together on a project as I chased my son around my family’s yard. Growing up on a farm, I was expected to work, and during times of depression and anxiety I felt powerless to meet this expectation. Watching these men brought up my insecurity around not being able to fulfill my obligations to the family farm and judging myself as lazy and weak. On this recent occasion, I simply listened to my thoughts and judgments. Being with my thoughts helped me allow my negativity to be present without needing to reject it. The space of listening also gave me a moment in time to place my hand on my chest and connect to my feelings. As the thoughts reduced, there was an opportunity to track my body’s response to the current and past events. Being with my self-judgment gives me time to untangle myself from the current situation and allows me to embrace the protective and guarded cycles of my physical experience.
Fulfilling protective cycles of shame means that we give ourselves the time and space to move through and track the body’s natural and unfulfilled protective responses. These responses are engrained in our being from the moment we hit the ground running. As a new father, part of me loves introducing my nineteen-month-old son to new people. He quickly grabs a hold of my leg or buries half of his face against my knee, peeking out to see this new person he is meeting. He hides partly out of fear, but keeps looking out with curiosity about this new experience. This natural impulse to tuck, turn inward, and hide is a mechanism of self-protection and is active in the process of shame. Deep inside there is an impulse for love and connection and a need to suppress, turn inward, protect, and hide. As a child, this hiding is innocent, natural, and healthy. In our adult lives, it can become self critical, isolating, limiting, and even damaging. I remember a moment in high school, which can offer some guidance on how to track and release the protective responses of shame from our nervous system. When I was a teenager I went to school in clothes that were plain and inexpensive. In my family name brand clothes were seen as a weakness in character. My mom would say in response for my request for nicer clothing, “You should not be so concerned with your looks.” I wanted so badly to have clothing that allowed me to fit in with everyone else. I agreed with my mom that spending one hundred dollars on a shirt or pair of jeans was absurd. However, my impulse to avoid bullying and to be accepted by my peers far out-weighed my moral code of humility. As I finally saved up enough money to shop at American Eagle, I bought a pair of pants and three shirts. I would wear those same three shirts in a row one day after another. I felt safe and accepted in my new clothes until a girl openly declared in front of my science class, “Jake wears the same shirt everyday.” In that moment my heart dropped to the floor, my chest filled with heat and anxiety, my stomach turned into knots, and I collapsed into shame. The impulse to be safe and connected was followed by the need to withdraw and plant my face on the proverbial knee, finding comfort in disconnection from this moment of complete exposure.
During high school I had no tools or resources to deal with my shame. I did not know how to be with my physical experience and to allow myself to move through protective cycles. Taking the time to track the body’s response allows us to turn inward and honor the natural withdrawing that occurs through the heightened and reactive responses of shame. In this situation at high school, my deepest insecurity of being exposed to my classmates was being realized. Even worse, my strategy to hide my insecurity was quickly dismantled by this girl. My American Eagle clothing could no longer protect me and I was left naked for everyone to see. This exposure creates a natural response of withdraw.
Now, long out of high school, as I stood on my farm and watched the men working without me, I was able to place my hand on my chest and solar plexus, feel the blood rush to the chest, neck, and head, feel my head turn downward, and notice the powerless feeling of trembling in my hands and feet. After a few moments of noticing these protective responses, I felt my head lift, the trembling replaced by warmth in the hands and feet. I felt my solar plexus slightly loosen its grip. Tracking the body allows me to be sensitive and vulnerable to the situation, much like a child who searches for connection from a parent. Time spent honoring protection is how we start to smooth out the fabric that has been bunched and pulled by our own protective responses. As judgment is soothed and protective cycles are honored, there is more room for the impulse to connect with life, free from insecurity and fear.
Think of the child who has withdrawn to a parent, like my toddler son when he encounters someone new. He is filled with the natural impulse to turn away, looks downward, and lets his overwhelming feelings be soothed by my presence. Once safety is established, my son can honor the part of his experience that is curious about this new person that is close to me. Dad is not running or reacting, so he feels safe and connected. The impulse to connect is always alive in moments of shame and is the warmth and reintegration that brings the thread back into the fabric. In my personal process with healing shame, allowing myself to be sensitive, shy, and emotional was a way that I became in touch with my natural impulses. Honoring protective cycles gets us into our body and allows us to feel, move, and express through our reactions. This deep integration into our physical and emotional feelings eventually opens us up to our natural impulse for curiosity, excitement, wholeness, self-expression, and sensuality. What previously felt stifled and suppressed in our past and through our own self-protection and self-judgment begins to shift toward self-acceptance. This is similar to my son, with drawing, feeling safe by my side, and then opening up to the friendly face that greets him. Natural impulses can exist for you as using your voice, being comfortable in your body, being sexual, being big and boisterous, being emotional, or having a strong opinion. Cycles of shame are caused by self- judgment, protection, and stifling these natural impulses. For me healing shame brought me back to an acceptance of my sensitivity and a new capacity to feel whole within myself.
Shame is caused by a correction of our natural impulses without being brought back into connection. Shame leaves a child, and eventually an adult, with a negative identity of being separate from others, leaving us fearful of exposure while hiding the parts of ourselves that were previously shamed or abused. Healing shame comes from learning how to listen and reduce the thoughts that alienate and build protective resistance in our body. Reduction of negative self-talk gives us space to touch our protective responses that hold the energy of protection and reaction. As protective cycles are fulfilled, safety is restored, allowing us to feel open in expressing the impulses that are deeply connected to our physical body. Healing shame brings our loose ends back into the fabric of self-acceptance and allows us to move through life without fear. Like a loving father or mother, our own consistent attention to healing shame brings ourselves out of alienation and back into the fabric of life.