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“Rosie won’t be there for that meeting because she has childcare issues…again”

“I’m sorry I can’t come to your coffee morning because I have to work”

“I’m sorry I missed parents evening, the train was cancelled”

Your cheeks burn, you stare at the ground, you hunch your shoulders and feel your body try to make itself as physically tiny as possible. You hope the ground will “swallow you up.” If you have ever felt like this then you have felt shame. Shame is arguably the most painful of all the human emotions. If you are feeling ashamed it is much harder to deal with trauma, depression or anxiety because shame makes us think it is all our fault. It tells us that we are fundamentally unworthy.

Shame tends to be triggered when we think we have broken the “rules.” This could be a little thing like being five minutes late for an important meeting or it could be something much bigger like having a gender identity that is not considered “normal” or having done something that most people think of as “wrong.” Survivors of abuse tend to have high levels of shame too because part of their brain wonders if they caused the abuse through “rule breaking” even when there is lots of evidence that they did nothing wrong.

Why do we experience shame?

Shame, like all of our emotions, is designed to protect us. Our bodies and minds were created for a time when being cast out of the “pack” meant certain death. Being accepted and liked by the powerful people around you meant survival. We therefore evolved the feeling of shame to make sure we do the things that are most likely to get us back in favour with angry alphas. Lack of eye contact, making our bodies look as small as possible and staying silent are all signs that animals use to show submission, that we are not trying to be threatening, that we just want to be accepted back into the fold. We are physically showing that we will do what we are told from now on.

Now we live in a very complicated society with lots of spoken and unspoken standards and ideals (aka rules!) so it is very easy to feel we have broken a rule. Unfortunately, as armed forces spouses, we are often in situations where we are likely to feel shame as our lifestyles mean we often have to compromise on how we work, how we parent, friendships, relationships, where we live, everything really….

Examples that might make us feel shame:

Having to admit to a new employer that we might move house after six months

Asking for flexibility at work

Asking for time off at work

When someone finds it surprising that we want to work

When someone finds it surprising that we don’t want to work (or can’t)

When someone finds it surprising that we have had a career break

When we get feedback from another adult that our child is struggling emotionally or developmentally

When we can’t do a daytime event or drop everything to go to a Thursday night social

When a civilian friend comes to our house and comments on the 70s kitchen/falling down roof

Of course, none of these things “should” make us feel ashamed. But, as we have touched on many times before in this blog series, our threat system isn’t aware of our logical understanding of the world. It just follows its instincts. Different people will feel ashamed of different things based on their upbringing and past experiences. These are just some examples I have picked up from my life and the spouses I have worked with recently.

Guilt vs shame?

Shame is different to guilt. Guilt is a feeling that gives you energy to do something, to make it better, to try and repair something you have done wrong. For example, if you feel guilty that you haven’t spent enough time with your kids you might shower them with kisses when you see them and get them a take away pizza for tea. Guilt makes us take action. For this reason guilt, unpleasant though it can feel, is often useful and can be resolved.

Shame has the opposite effect. You know you are feeling shame instead of guilt when, instead of trying to make things better, you just want to hide from everyone. If we are truly ashamed of the way we have behaved we often don’t feel able to talk about it, we can’t apologise and may run away or lash out. It is very difficult to resolve anything when we are stuck in shame.

What problems does shame cause us?

Shame is the ULTIMATE threat system response. We are very close to physical, mental and emotional shut down when we feel ashamed. Our reactions therefore become very primitive. We lose our ability to think logically, creatively problem solve and connect with others. We try and hide from the issue, run away or lash out at the source of our shame. It is common to do things we regret when we feel shame. For example, if feedback from my child’s school that they have been biting other kids triggers shame in me it is likely that I will either snap at the teacher or look at the floor, grab my daughter’s coat and run out of there. I am unlikely to sit down with the teacher and figure out a sensible plan.

What can we do about it?

 If you have read the rest of this blog series you will be familiar with my mantra by now. When we feel a strong emotion that could overpower us we need to:

  1. Regulate/activate our soothing system

  2. Connect with others

  3. Creatively problem solve

When we feel ashamed this is even more important.

Regulating

Shame is all about staying small and this will often provoke a huge amount of muscle tension so exercises that involve moving the body can be really helpful. Starting with the soothing breathing into the belly that we practiced earlier this month and moving into yoga, Tai Chi or another method of movement that works with the breath will help demonstrate that we are in control of our bodies, whatever our minds are doing. Moving with a slow, steady breath that goes into the diaphragm will help activate the parasympathetic nervous system (part of the soothing system). Mindfully tuning in to the impact of the movement in the body will also help take some of the heat away from the shame filled thoughts our minds are generating.

Connection

When we feel ashamed the last thing we want to do is reach out to another person. Every fibre of our being wants to hide or push other people away. Once we have regulated however, if we can stand it, social contact will help communicate to our threat system that we are not likely to be exiled. That even if we think we have done something wrong, we are still safe and accepted by our group. There is nothing more powerful than that. Opening up to someone by stating “I feel ashamed of XYZ” is an intense act of vulnerability because it lays us open to criticism and judgement. When we are vulnerable in that way it also sends a strong signal to the other person that we are not intending to fight them. This kind of vulnerability is therefore usually met with warmth and kindness which helps to restore our soothing system. Of course this is not always the case so it is important to choose someone you trust to connect with when you are trying to recover from shame.

Problem solve

Now you have regulated and connected it is most likely that you can see some action you could take to repair any damage that has been caused. Or maybe you can now see more clearly that the situation wasn’t your fault. Or possibly you can now see that your shame was triggered as a result of trauma you have been through and you need some therapy to move past it. This is a good time to brainstorm your options and decide what action fits best with your values.

I hope this has been a useful introduction to how to deal with one of the most painful emotions humans feel. Please do get in touch via RFS if you have any questions or comments. This is the end of this series of blog posts but I am in the forum as Rosie Gildertrigg and am always happy to help.

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