Why Our Brains Work Against Us
The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) produced a two-minute video on Facebook about shame. They say, “Our brains have a natural negativity bias. This bias can keep your brain trapped in a perpetual loop of shame, isolation and depression.”
Focus on the Bad
The video also explained that we have been “primed” by evolution to focus on the bad vs. good. That’s “what’s kept us alive as a species.” Interestingly, the parts of the brain that light up when a person is feeling shame are not in the emotional or limbic brain. Instead, they are in the prefrontal and cingulate cortex. As a result, your thinking actually becomes impaired. You may perseverate on “what’s wrong with you, what other people think about you and what’s wrong with other people.”
Dr. David Grand often says that when someone is steeped in shame and blame, it makes it hard for the brain to heal. But shame is powerful. When caregivers or teachers shame children, the shame gets wedged into every sinew, and it’s hard to extract. As a result, it may feel like you’re in a wrestler’s headlock. Shame makes it almost impossible to sit with the burning discomfort of emotions like sorrow, grief or anger. Free of guilt and shame, emotions pass through and leave the body. Shame inspires a story that inhibits those emotions from clearing. Consequently, people get depressed or numbed out or they resort to self-medicating.
Inner Bully – “Parts work”
I recommend that people hear their inner bully and see it for what it is. The inner bully part was developed you were very young, and it thinks it is protecting you. The trouble is that it holds you stuck in a state of hyper-vigilance. If you are perpetuating the shame towards yourself, then your nervous system is in a constant state of arousal or fight, flight or freeze, so that when someone else criticizes you, you bite off their head. Your reactions don’t match what was said to you.
In other words, what may be a simple observation FEELS like an attack or criticism when inner bully is already whispering in your ear.
Trauma and Therapy
Shame is usually a result of trauma. You may have the best intentions to overcome shame, but if it is programmed as your protection, then you’ll have to dance with the subconscious to find relief. In other words, the primal brain and survival programming hijacks any good intentions you might have. Some form of body-centered or somatic therapy is helpful. Doing cognitive work and beginning a practice of helpful, compassionate self-talk is an important complement to the deeper work required to heal from shame.
In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach says: “Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns…We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet, each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small.”
I often help my clients to see that their pain is not an indication of how messed up they are. Instead, it is their hero’s journey. It is an opportunity to overcome and be changed and move on to help others in the same way. It is the deepest form of soul work to come face to face with our deepest fears and shame. And as you recognize the stories that your inner bully has created to hold you down, and you feel compassion for the struggling inner child, you open the door for a shift to occur.
Click HERE to watch the Facebook clip (this requires that you have a Facebook page. I could not find another more universal link).