As with trauma, shame triggers us to move out of our rest & digest GREEN zone and into the RED danger zone: our instinctual survival back brain of fight/flight/freeze. We disconnect from those around us, we tell ourselves we are bad. It is hard to communicate with others or listen as our front brain goes offline. Our response to this will vary: we may move away (flight) or hide, we may move towards (pleasing others, freezing, procrastinating) or we may move against. Moving against shame in an unhelpful way takes many forms: fight or shame rage (see below), self-sabotage by hurting yourself, shaming others or over-compensating our worth as a protective shield (Brene Brown calls this ‘Puffing up’).
We’ve explored anger earlier, valid anger about the exclusions in society. But here we need to mention shame rage in more detail. Rage is often a vehicle for shame. We use rage to try and communicate our inner world to others so they can feel what we feel. Unfortunately, rage rarely achieves this. More often than not shame rage alienates others. Do you recognise how others have raged at you as a way to release them from their shame and pain around their thoughts around disability? Or perhaps when you have raged at others coming from a place of shame?
Mel: “Reflecting back on those therapy relationships that terminated abruptly, I now think they were often a result of shame rage. In therapy, we are asked to be vulnerable, to be honest, to disclose our inner minds. This therefore means that shame and the thought ‘I am bad’ can more easily be triggered when discussing things that we don’t like about ourselves or how others interact with us, or when we think about abandonment. This shame trigger results in energy which needs somewhere to go and can come out as rage, sometimes at other people including the therapist. In this state of shame rage, our front brain isn’t online, there is little empathy towards the other person and little of what we call ‘reality testing’, the ability to ‘see’ a situation without it being clouded by our hopes or fears.
Being aware of how ‘unheard’ most disabled people are, sometimes my own shame was triggered as a result of the client’s shame rage, my shame thoughts of not being a good enough therapist. My shame then meant I shrunk down and let myself be shamed in return. In this whirlwind of shame, clients have raged at me, and my non-active or apologising response led to more rage and it has been harder to come back from this place (as the other person then experienced more shame about what happened). As a therapist I struggled to bring the process of what was happening in the room into awareness so that the rupture could be processed and healed. I now know that I need to explain what shame rage is, what triggered it and discuss other ways to explore the shame instead of rage so that the other person can learn to say no to themselves too.
For me personally, learning about shame and shame rage is also helping me to not pass on my shame to others by shaming them.