The deep wounds of shame can leave us feeling completely adrift, lost in an ocean of pain and yearning to be utterly invisible.
This self-perpetuating cycle of being imprisoned in a shame spiral can be agonising as it cuts us off from the very empathy and warm connection of others that is vital to restoring safety. If you were to look into the brain of someone gripped in toxic shame spirals, you would see neural nets isolated and cut off from the rest of the brain. Inside these neural nets are shame’s core belief of worthlessness, cemented from countless, repeated shaming experiences.
The deep roots of shame can be epitomised as a terrifying, frozen scene of a small child being mercilessly pursued by an angry parent. Because the amygdala in the brain has no time stamp, it feels as though the shamed inner child is frozen in time.
Author of Being a Brain-wise Therapist, Bonnie Badenoch, describes how “when the shaming experience is early, frequent and without repair, this person also develops a cortical invariant representation, further cementing him or her into an identity as a defective person” (Badenoch, 2008, p.105).
Embodied shame is synonymous with the body posture of downturned eyes, lowered head and collapsed chest. It is as though we are bracing ourselves, collapsed, to protect our hearts. This well of shame can result in people retreating and avoiding any intimacy or contact. Or it may arise as a defensive armouring of anger or rage to protect from the agonising despair of shame threatening to erupt in any moment.
Healthy Shame Versus Toxic Shame
Research on shame distinguishes between healthy shame versus toxic shame. The difference between healthy shame is the belief that ‘’I did something bad”. In toxic shame, the belief is ‘’I am bad’’. Shame researcher, Dr. Brene Brown, has been instrumental in deepening cultural awareness and understanding around shame. Dr. Brown re-labelled these concepts by calling toxic shame simply shame, and referring to healthy shame as guilt. She explains that feeling guilt can lead to positive changes in behaviour. In contrast, shame results in worthlessness and is unhealthy.
Seeking support is vital to emerging from the oceanic depths of shame. Opening to heal these shame wounds is a sacred journey of the soul and heart and healing the deepest attachment wounds which is the soil which created the conditions for toxic shame to take root.
Bringing Shame Into the Light
Shame can only live in the shadows of darkness and cannot survive in the light.
By reaching out to the warm connection and empathic support of others we can begin to transform our shame and re-write our shame narratives. By healing shame, we can move into a deeper connection, greater worth, empowerment and a renewed sense of belonging.
My own personal journey healing shame began nearly 10 years ago when I immersed myself in experiential training which combined interpersonal neurobiology, non-violent communication, inner parts work and somatic approaches. I remember feeling too frozen in a shame spiral to even call into the first teleconference group call. The soothing empathy given by my mentor seeped into every cell of my body, gently inviting me to come out of the shame spiral that gripped me so tightly. That experience opened a portal to me understanding my shame triggers and the somatic sensations of shame I carried in my body. I entered through a door into an entirely new world of exploring my inner terrain. I learnt that once we allow our shame to have a voice and reach out in the warmth of connection with a trusted other, that shame can melt and the protective defence responses can begin to complete. Through my training and in assisting in these circles over four years, I began to hold with deep compassion those parts of me that had been frozen in shame and untangle the different shame memories linked to sharing in groups at school.
Deeply understanding the neurobiology of shame is vital to having compassion for our inner parts that have been frozen in shame spirals and in offering them a lifeline of warmth and compassion to begin to come out of the emergency response shutdown.
The Neurobiology of Shame
Understanding the neurobiology of shame is a vital part of beginning to heal toxic shame and allow it to loosen its grip. Leaning into embracing our shame wounds begins with a deep, compassionate understanding for the way our mind-body works. We gently open to acknowledging how the parts of us that are holding shame arose as a survival response to help us get through an unbearable situation.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) involves two branches – the sympathetic (which acts like the accelerator in a car) and the parasympathetic (which acts like the brakes). Badenoch describes the neurobiology of shame as when the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system takes over, which results in us feeling withdrawn.
Primed for Shame
As infants, we are primed for sensitivity to shame because of our hard-wiring as humans to seek connection and closeness with our caregivers. Our earliest experiences of how we are met by our parents are stored in our limbic system in our amygdala, in implicit memory beneath conscious awareness. We develop an anticipation of whether relationships are trustworthy or not trustworthy based on these repeated earliest experiences. We interpret life through the filter of these internalised mental models beneath our conscious awareness.
When a parent says “no” for a healthy safety boundary to their toddler, for example when the child is about to run onto a road, this activates the parasympathetic system, which results in a modulation of arousal. An attuned and empathic parent will immediately re-join their child and offer a redirection, balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic. This dance between rupture and repair helps to nurture a wide window of tolerance over time.
However, in the case of toxic shame, the parental ‘’no’’ is often purely based on the parent’s needs and not followed by the healing repair. The parasympathetic system comes into action and at the same time, the anger of the parent continues to accelerate the sympathetic system, which will feel like both the gas pedal and brake being slammed on at the same time. If the parent turns away, the child is left in an ocean of isolation of the parasympathetic shame freeze. If this shame dynamic occurs repeatedly, toxic shame becomes entwined with the self-perceived identity and results in an anticipated sense of rejection.
It’s important to acknowledge that not all shame wounds arise from within families. Sometimes shame arises from other repeated experiences at school, in peer groups or other social interactions. Each person’s experience of shame is so unique.
The Cost of Shame
Prolonged levels of stress impact the hippocampal functioning in the brain, which is essential in explicit memory. This means that when someone feels distressed they may not understand why the shame is arising, which compounds the shame spiral effect. Bradshaw (1990) states “’Prolonged shame states early in life can result in permanently dysregulated autonomic functioning and a heightened sense of vulnerability to others. Their lives are marked by a chronic anxiety, exhaustion, depression and a losing struggle to achieve perfection’’ (as cited in Cozolino, 2006).
According to Dr. Brown, the heart of developing shame resilience is reaching out to trusted others by sharing your story and receiving empathy. Her research shows that not talking about a shame experience can cause more damage than the experience itself.
The four ways to cultivate shame resilience include:
- Recognising shame and shame triggers
- Practising critical awareness (increasing our personal power by understanding the links between our personal experiences and larger social systems)
- Reaching out to others to find empathy and build connection networks
- Speaking shame
Healing Toxic Shame
If we are healing deep toxic shame we may need the support of a therapist who understands the neurobiology of shame and embodied approaches. Just as our deepest attachment wounds occur in relationships, repair begins in relationships. Therapy anchored in safety and attunement can help to reactive and repair the attachment system to rebuild the interpersonal bridge (as Gershen Kaufman describes in Shame: The Power of Caring.
Holding the neural nets of shame that are revealed with warmth and compassion can began the neural integration process. It allows the invisible generational shame cycles to become visible and for the person to realise that it wasn’t their fault and that the shame was imposed on them by the unconsciousness of the parent or other adult. That the other person was in deep pain and projecting their own shame outwards onto them because it was too painful to sit within themselves.
Compassionate acceptance is the foundation for neural integration to begin to flow and for new beliefs to emerge. A trusted another can begin to mirror back the inherent value and worth of another and transform the imprints of worthlessness embedded within the neural nets of shame. Then we can begin to nurture an inner community of warmth and acceptance to hold our tender inner parts.
The underlying limbic experience beneath engrained shame is fear. Therefore, nurturing what Steve Porges refers to as a neuroception of safety is vital to healing. This will provide the felt sense of safety that was lacking in the earliest relationships with caregivers and allow the person to come out of the shame freeze and return into the social engagement system. The therapist becomes a safe refuge in a gentle and slow process which is paced by the person’s nervous system. Then a new narrative of self and truth can begin to emerge, one that opens through the warmth of being held in self-compassion by another.
The slither of light of warmth begins to soften the protective armour around our hearts and we can begin to gently touch the inner child and internalised parental voice. It is a gentle, slow, dance which invites the isolated neural net bundles of shame to begin to slowly integrate as we lean into our vulnerability in safe spaces. A compassionate heart, along with nurturing an embodied brain, are vital to healing shame.
Somatic Shame Healing
Another deeply nurturing approach for healing shame is Somatic Experiencing, a body-based trauma healing approach developed by Peter Levine, which facilitates deep healing of a person out of the freeze response which is associated with shame.
Using healing sounds and working with body postures through Somatic Experiencing are powerful ways to help the body to come out of the freeze response. As the body emerges from the stuck freeze response, the person will begin to feel the fight flight responses that were unable to be completed as part of the healing process. Shame can often arise around the sense of powerlessness that trauma evokes in us, which can further reinforce the trauma freeze response. Somatic experiencing can help a person to untangle the shame from other emotions, such as anger, grief and fear. This untangling is a slow process.
I am holding all your tender parts with deep compassion, especially any tender parts that may have come up as you read this blog post.
Please reach out to a body-based trauma therapist if you are needing more support in healing your toxic shame.
Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York: Norton.
Brown, B. (2008). I thought it was just me (but it isn’t). London: Gotham Books.
Cozolino, l. (2006). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain. New York: Norton.