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Exploring the Depths of Shame: A Journey Through Evolution, Psychology, and Neurobiology



In order to properly understand shame, delving into its roots from an evolutionary and neurobiological perspective is essential. At the core of our being, we are wired to seek acceptance from our tribe, family, or community. Shame, one of the five self-conscious emotions alongside pride, envy, embarrassment, and guilt, emerges around the age of two, which is when we develop our sense of self-awareness and separation from others.


It's crucial to differentiate shame from guilt as they often overlap but have distinct psychological and emotional differences. Guilt stems from a sense of having done something wrong, leading to remorse and regret, specifically about one's actions. It's a moral compass signalling a violation of our internal values or societal norms. In guilt, the focus is on the behaviour, allowing room for repair, growth, and making amends.


Shame cuts deeper into our core identity, suggesting that we did something wrong and are fundamentally flawed or unworthy as individuals. Unlike guilt, which motivates positive change, shame paralyses. It isolates us, making seeking help or amending the situation impossible. Shame fosters self-criticism, driving a wedge between us and our self-compassion. Understanding this distinction is vital in the realm of healing. Guilt can catalyse growth, acknowledging a mistake that prompts positive action. Shame, however, demands a more delicate approach rooted in self-compassion and understanding. In healing from shame, recognising this difference allows for targeted interventions, promoting behavioural change and a fundamental shift in self-perception and acceptance.


From an evolutionary standpoint, shame is rooted in our social threat system tied to competitive behaviour and the constant need to prove oneself acceptable to others. This emotion is deeply entwined with our fundamental desire for love and acceptance, stemming from early experiences such as not receiving the nurturing gaze of a caregiver, signifying a lack of acceptance from our tribe.


In Core Process Psychotherapy, we theorise that shame originates from these early experiences, leaving profound imprints on our psyche. The absence of love and acceptance during these formative years can lead to prolonged shame states, negatively affecting emotional regulation and fostering chronic anxiety, exhaustion, and depression.


On a neurobiological level, shame closely resembles trauma in the body. When confronted with shame, our brain reacts as if facing physical danger. Shame and trauma often intersect, compromising emotional safety and hindering interpersonal connections. Shame mirrors trauma in its timeless nature, constantly experienced as a present reality.


Shame can manifest as fragmented thoughts, speech, and a sense of going blank, akin to dissociation. It induces an implosion of the body—head lowered, eyes closed or concealed, and the upper body curling inwards, attempting to occupy as little space as possible. Much like trauma, shame operates at primitive levels beyond the reach of rational thinking, deactivating our social engagement system and slowing down our perception of time.


Chronic shame profoundly affects our capacity to form healthy, secure bonds. Shame bears the burden of self-blame and isolation, often accompanied by a protective layer of anger or rage. Shame conveys the message, "I am the problem; it's my fault," reinforcing the individual's sense of unworthiness.


Understanding the intricacies of shame requires delving into the realms of neurobiology. According to Stephen Porges and his Polyvagal Theory, the human nervous system operates in three states: the Parasympathetic Ventral Vagal System (feeling safe and open to social engagement), the Parasympathetic Dorsal Vagal System (immobilisation in response to extreme threat), and the Sympathetic Nervous System (mobilisation in response to perceived threat).


Ideally, in the absence of trauma or chronic shame, individuals seamlessly transition between these states. However, persistent shame disrupts the parasympathetic ventral vagal system, which shuts down our social engagement system, thus affecting our capacity to be in relationship -not only with others but also within ourselves. Recognising these states is pivotal in trauma and shame therapy, and helps therapists guide clients into a state of regulation and laying the foundation for healing.


Understanding Compassion in the Depths of Shame



In the exploration of shame and its profound impact on the human psyche, it is essential to delve into the transformative power of compassion. According to Kristin Neff, a renowned expert in self-compassion, three fundamental components comprise this healing force.


Mindfulness:

As described by Neff, mindfulness is the ability to be acutely aware of the present moment and acknowledge our emotions as they arise. This awareness empowers us to confront the depth of our difficult emotions. In the context of shame, mindfulness starkly contrasts over-identification and rumination, which often characterise the shame experience. Instead of being consumed by self-deprecation, mindfulness allows us to witness our emotions without judgment, creating a space for healing and self-acceptance.


Kindness, Warmth, Support, and Encouragement:

The qualities of kindness, warmth, support, and encouragement form the second component of self-compassion. In the face of shame, where self-criticism often reigns supreme, these qualities act as antidotes. When we extend kindness to ourselves, we counteract the damaging language of shame. Embracing warmth and support, we provide ourselves with the nurturing environment necessary for healing. In the realm of shame, where isolation prevails, these qualities become powerful bridges connecting us back to ourselves and others.


Recognition of Shared Humanity:

The third component distinguishing self-compassion from the isolating nature of self-pity is the understanding that suffering is a shared human experience. In the depths of shame, one often retreats into solitude, disconnecting from the world. Conversely, recognising that our pain is part of the broader human experience dissolves the walls of isolation. It reminds us that we are not alone in our struggles, fostering a sense of connection and commonality.


In Core Process Psychotherapy, mindfulness and compassion are revered as pivotal in healing. This mindful compassion cultivates a profound resonance with our experiences, enabling us to confront shame with courage and self-acceptance. Chris Germer, an expert aligned with Neff's philosophy, highlights the contrast between self-compassion's components and shame's characteristics. When we integrate mindfulness, kindness, and the recognition of shared humanity, we dismantle the isolating language of shame. In its place, we foster an environment of acceptance, understanding, and connection, illuminating the path toward healing and self-renewal.


Enquiring into the depths of shame reveals its intricate connections to our evolutionary history, psychological development, and neural pathways. By understanding the profound impact of shame, therapists and individuals can navigate the path to healing, fostering self-acceptance, and rebuilding connections with others.

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