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Understanding Shame as a Protection Response

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

Shame is a powerful emotion that shapes our behaviors and our lives. If any of you have followed Brené Brown’s work, you know she talks about shame in the context of connection, delineating empathy and shame on a continuum: the one enhancing, the other hindering our ability to connect with others.

But one thing she does not discuss is that the state of our nervous system is what drives the underlying momentum towards an experience of empathy or towards shame. In other words, shame is also a body response.

Shame helps us learn prosocial behaviors, basically what is acceptable and what is not within our social groups. Hopefully these kinds of experiences are coupled with a sense of belonging and being accepted for all that we are within our social relationships in spite of the fact that we may have misstepped in our behavior. But if shame occurs regularly and without that important element of feeling accepted and validated, our experience of shame can become pervasive. Instead of shame being about something we have done, it becomes the backdrop for our sense of self. In other words, instead of simply making a mistake or disappointing someone through our actions, we BECOME the mistake. We ARE the disappointment.

When we experience shame, we move into a freeze state. This is the part of our nervous system that shuts down as a defense response whenever we feel overwhelmed by something and unable to metabolize that experience. Whether we are consciously tracking it or not, every time we experience shame, a freeze or inhibitory response is initiated in our body. It might be small, perhaps even infinitesimal, but make no mistake, it is there. Have you ever tracked yourself or your body signals during a shame response? You might notice:

• A flushing feeling of heat

• A sense of the sound in your ears distorting or growing fuzzy

• A sense of tightening in your chest or throat

• A feeling of everything pausing or stopping, like being pinched in a web or a blanket of fog dropping down around you dulling your thoughts and your sensations

• An experience of disconnection from your body, the conversation, the moment

These are just some of the ways that shame might manifest in our bodies. When this happens, it is important for us to recognize that the primary experience at the level of the nervous system is, “I am not safe!” So we might react in all kinds of ways to protect against the experience of “not safe.” That might include, becoming defensive and pushing back (i.e., fight), withdrawing from the experience (or flight), appeasing the person or situation that has triggered the shame response in us, or staying shut down and overwhelmed.

When our bodies are in their survival physiology (i.e., fight, flight or freeze), it is very difficult if not near impossible to practice empathy. So if we want to have the adaptability to move towards effective communication, empathy and connection during times of being triggered, we need to know how to work with our bodies first to come back to a base of internal safety.

What might happen if we could begin to recognize our body cues and to contextualize our shame response as a call for increased safety? What if we could track and monitor the nervous system moving into that experience of freeze? What if we had tools that allowed us to settle the physical reaction and to drop back towards a sense of internal safety? Might we meet ourselves in the experience in a new way? Be able to change our reactions and coping strategies to allow more self-compassion and less internalized judgment? How might our quality of relationship to self and other shift over time?

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