The Shape of Shame: Trauma, Posture and Coming to Tall

Way back when I was first training to work with couples, I studied with the renowned relationship expert and researcher, John Gottman. By now Gottman is about as familiar to the mainstream as a movie star, known for his 40 plus years of longitudinal data about what makes marriages “succeed or fail.”  In that early training, Gottman often referenced the work of Paul Eckman, who studied emotions.

Eckman’s unique contribution was to discover the vocabulary of the face. He found through extensive and copious research and travel, a universal lexicon of facial and sometimes even body expressions correlating both cross-culturally and trans-historically to the specific emotions. This means that human beings (and some other mammals) configure their faces, and (with some emotions the body as well,) in a consistent, recognizable way, even identical way. In effect we do read and respond to the feelings of others with some accuracy.  Thus there are silent (and often deadly) lengthy conversations, often outside of our awareness, transpiring much of the time.  

This can be an advantage, however, and particularly with trauma and neglect of course, the complication is not the “read.”  Often the survivor is impeccably attuned to the subtleties of shifting emotion in others, obviously in the urgent mandate to pursue safety. The problem rather is in the interpretation. Survivors may quickly perceive and register anger, for example, but through the lens of their histories. So of course they may take it to mean “that it is anger at me” and then react to that.  Sadly, many of our relationship nightmares are based on these redundant, mutual and usually escalating dynamics of mis-interpretation.  And this is what can make the world of relationship a minefield, a waste-land, an elusive promised land or fiercely avoided “no man’s” land for survivors of all kinds of trauma.

Eckman devised a system for learning to read emotion quickly, and I remember buying the sets of CD’s (remember those?) and spending hours in front of the computer, flipping through the images of the many faces trying to improve my speed and accuracy at naming the corresponding emotion. Eckman went on to become an expert on lying and the ability to discern when an individual was lying. He became a high level consultant to the CIA and a sought after expert witness in high (and lower) profile criminal cases. Eckman himself struggled with his own anger, and I once heard him tell a remarkable story of how he worked with it.  It would be too long to include in this blog but is retold in the book he co-wrote with the Dalai Lama, Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion. Well worth the read!

Shame

A persistent and agonizing emotional consequence of trauma is shame. Our understanding of this is even more pronounced, now that the trauma field has identified and named ”moral injury” which is the category of trauma where the survivor has committed some heinous act, which was outside of their control. Veterans may suffer profound moral injury for atrocities that they were forced to perpetrate in the line of military duty.  Medical personnel and first responders during the height of the COVID Pandemic similarly had to “let people die;” or choose who was to receive the ventilator when there were not enough to go around.  But victims of violence themselves who did not in reality bring it in any way upon themselves, often feel responsible or as if they “deserved it” or did, in fact bring it on themselves somehow.  Irrational as it may in fact be; they are haunted by that.  Shame is an emotion that is most difficult to treat and alleviate, as it is so deep in the psyche and as we are now learning, the brain. 

The Feeling of Shame

Many of us have at least heard the term Sensory Integration. For myself, before I learned more, I associated it  to school kids with learning or behavioral problems.

It really has to do with connectivity and regulation between the various channels of sense perceptions, and other brain functions. We are all familiar with what are commonly thought of as the “five” senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. What we may be less aware of is the other three: introception, proprioception, and balance. Introception is the experience of what is going on inside the body, the sensation of a pounding heart for example, pain or tightness in the throat which may come with sadness and tears; the welling in the chest that might come with love or a burst of compassion. It also refers to pain, dizziness or numbing. 

Proprioception is the body awareness of where we are in space, the demarcation between “me and not me” and physical closeness versus distance from other people and objects.  I always wondered why I was so completely inept at catching a ball, or parking a car squarely between the lines,  Balance of course, refers to equilibrium and solidity or grounded-ness. 

Interestingly, the brain areas corresponding to body experiences are tightly connected to the limbic system, home of the emotions.  And the limbic system is tightly connected to the prefrontal cortex, which is our “thinking cap:” executive branch. The prefrontal area regulates, not only cognition, but planning, agency, and sense of time, among many other functions. Just like the old song my dad used to sing to us “the shoulder bone’s connected to the arm bone…” etcetera, etcetera down the skeleton, all these various functions are fundamentally interconnected. It makes sense that we might register (or not!) our various feeling states all kinds of ways. Some of us are very fluent at this, whether accurately or not. 

When the primary experience is “incident” or shock trauma, the cataclysm of something that did occur, the individual might feel too much; when the primary experience is about missing experience or the overwhelming lack or what did not happen, the default might be to feel very little or even nothing at all. 

One of the most pronounced and identifying features of a neglect history is the tragic poverty of mirroring. Mirroring is the reflection back from the caregiver of what the child is feeling, and perhaps attempting to express.  Now at last we get to shame.  When an infant looks up into the parent’s eyes, and “I see reflected back, a loving image of me,” that is when a sense of self begins to emerge and come online in the little nascent brain. With repetition, it becomes the default sense of self: “I am worthy, I am loveable, I am seen.” When accompanied by an accurate read of my bodily and emotional needs, it is re-enforced. That is, if my hunger is accurately understood as such and gratified with food, my cold with a warm embrace or “blanky,” my fear or loneliness with comfort and/or company, I learn not only that I am worthy, but with luck, learn to associate the need with its appropriate “remedy”  and with luck, even learn the names for the complex of varied feelings. Sense of self ; self worth; the ability to identify, name, ultimately express feelings; and what is needed to fulfill or regulate them, all this is the product of accurate and sufficient mirroring. 

No parent does it perfectly! In fact the attachment researchers tell us that the most attuned parents, who raise the most securely attached children, get the attunement accurately 30% of the time. 30 %!  And all the rest is regulation and repair, which is how self regulation is ultimately learned.

In the case of shame, the poverty of mirroring means much of this fails to occur. The child may look up and see no-one or nothing there, an angry, fear stricken, hateful, troubled or disconnected face, and the result is confusion and anxiety. As the brain develops, the child will wonder why? Why am I hated, alone, not taken care of, cold hungry and afraid? The brain is ever in search of answers. Without a reliable source, we make one up: most likely, “I am worthless.”

 We default to cowering, hiding, searching for a way to be worthy enough: perfection? Helpfulness? Some way for compensating for one’s “deficit?” The universal posture of shame is one of cowering, shrinking inward, pulling back, down and inward, almost as if to weather a blow. This unattractive and consistent body organization is a universal measure of shame. It is not sloppiness or laziness, not ugliness, but rather it is “Nature’s Way of Telling You Something’s Wrong…” Most of you are probably too young to remember that wonderful song.

Working With the Posture of Shame

Working with the emotion and identity of shame is one of the hardest aspects of trauma healing. It begins so early and is so deep in the brain and non-verbal memory systems. Many of us have been at it for decades and it is still a work in progress! The method actors have long known however, that the deep interconnections between bodily, emotional and cognitive experience are multidirectional, or accessible via different access routes. They have found that if they put on, even feign the expressions that correlate to a particular emotion, the accurate emotion comes up, and perhaps even a personal memory. Or they might enter from the memory, or the body configuration and whichever way in, the skilled actor produces a believable replica or performance. Many survivors default to performance as a means of attempting worthiness, or a facsimile of relationship. I am not suggesting that!  However a good body worker can help advance the progress of working with this complicated and hard to reach emotion.

So to sum up, a few suggestions, (and warning, none of these are easy to follow!):

  • At the very least, try to stem and eradicate any shame about shame! It comes with the territory.
  • Know that it takes time and work to change this!
  • Remember that self-love is the learned experience drawn from having received and felt the love of another! If you lack the ability for self love, there is no shame in that! If is rather a point of grief!
  • To just “stand up straight” may be very difficult! It maybe unsustainable, it may produce physical pain, it may be scary, it may feel very “fake” at least at first. Go gently.  

A reputable form of body therapy with a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner can be an essential and expediting addition to healing. 

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” is out now. It  provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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