Thoughts on shame and fear

Shame. One of the most primitive human emotions. Devastating. The feeling that you’re never good enough, and how dare you, and what gives you the right. Getting humiliated and shamed at work is terrible; shaming ourselves is a learned behavior. Shame is a driving force of abusive relationships. Internalized, toxic shame can send us into spiraling tailspins of helplessness, dissociation, frozen fear and self-loathing. This sort of chronic shame, I’m learning, often stems from childhood and interpersonal traumatic experiences. And at the same time, everyone feels shame. Everyone has experienced that wash with emotion, flushed, wish-I-could-take-it-back-but-I-can’t-and-now-I-have-to-live-with-it feeling. I am not alone. No one is alone.

I noticed this week, too, that much of my shame is laced with fear, and when I am already in a vulnerable place, shame is easy to sneak right on in and cause far more damage than it may have on other days.

Forgiveness helps. Compassion, especially self-compassion, helps. Loving, kindness, gentleness, helps.

And a gentle reminder that hey, there, buddy, it’s not the end of the world! Chin up. We all do shameful things sometimes. We’re all arrogant sometimes. We all have moments of entitlement and self-righteousness… we do because we are human, not because we are profoundly flawed or something is inherently wrong with us. You’re okay. You’re safe. Chin up, buddy, I’m telling myself. Shame is gonna try and eat you alive. That monster’s been working you up really good this week, but hey there, buddy. You got this. You’re a good being, full of light and love and this too shall pass. I love you and you’ll get through this.

It started over the weekend: I agreed to cat-sit for my neighbor. I know that my own kitty dying last May was traumatic and I’m working through the grief, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to try it out, spend some one-on-one time with a sweet cat, on my own terms and feel safe. The first evening was okay; scary, but I fed him, played with him, cuddled with him, and made a strong effort to stay present. It was hard, and I found that I couldn’t quite let that unbridled joy of being around such a lovely cat come out; the protective filter was there, but it felt like a good step. The next day, the fear going into the apartment was worse; by the last day and following morning, I was anything but present. Robot. Couldn’t even look at the cat. Too much fear.

I had a sweet and sad dream Sunday morning about my 17 year old cat visiting to bring me gifts and say goodbye, but then I woke up in a terrified cold sweat thinking of dead bodies and fear.

(I am noticing as I write this my heart is pounding and shame is pounding. I am choosing to be brave and share this. I am safe right now. I can do this.)

This week, following the cat-sitting, has been a haze of not-here and anger and those visceral images that I can’t shut out no matter how hard I scrunch up my eyes and put up my hands. And trying to deal with the emotions but the flight/fight/freeze fear is too strong.

And then a mistake at work– I overstepped– it happens, especially when I am trying to be helpful. It was my fault and I do know better, but it happened and that was that. I was already far on my way to shame land, and already feeling so young and scared and out of myself. And then, of course, the chastisement from a harsh, aggressive higher-up.

The perfect storm.

And I could feel it happening. My awareness is growing stronger: I could feel it happening, feeling what small semblance of my Self I had this week crawl inside my chest, curl up tight in a ball and hide. Shame is like that, and trauma is like that, and this is disappearing into myself. This is emotional shut-down. This is losing words and not knowing how to feed myself. This is being in a body–my body– but being just a ball of pulsating terror deep inside of my core.

This is the space of fear. This is the space of horror. This is the space of knowing something so awful and terrible is out there and being afraid to look at it, see it, accept it.

We could call it dissociation, if we want to get clinical, and we could call it “blending into an exile,” for Internal Family Systems. We could call this post-traumatic stress disorder. I think that descriptor is accurate at this point, as confusing as that is to admit and share.

Today I am trying to un-blend. I’m trying compassion. I’m trying to take care of my little, scared part and unfurl her, help her come back into our body. I took her to yoga this morning. She got her lefts and rights and limbs mixed up a bit, but it went alright. We watched Brene Brown on YouTube this afternoon together to cope with the less-intense shame reaction from the work incident. I made her a nice lunch. I know she didn’t really want to eat anything, and she likes soft foods that require very little chewing- yogurt, smoothies, milk, juice; we had pasta with some tasty sauce, cooked veggies, and then milk and oreos. We’re going to see a movie tonight and meeting a friend there for good measure.

She’s petrified and trying to hide, and I’m taking care of her this weekend. It’s scary, but we’re going to work through it.

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