Why Do I Freeze Up and Go Silent? Move Beyond the Separating Power of Shame

The following is an excerpt from “If the Buddha Got Stuck: A Handbook for Change on a Spiritual Path,” by Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D.

Shame is a great paralyzer. To become unstuck we need to explore this troublesome feeling. When people are left, excluded, shunned, or abused, they often slide into persistent shame, which can result in depression, isolation, anxiety, and illness. Shame is a mired down, wretched feeling that arises in response to believing we are intrinsically bad, worthless, and defective. It can become a visceral, hardwired reaction that stems from having been humiliated, degraded, embarrassed, and diminished into an object for someone else’s use.

Shame is like an old experience ready to be resurrected when someone talks or responds to you in a way that echoes an earlier shaming situation. For example, if someone in the past frequently implied or referred to you as stupid, feelings of shame can be instantly triggered in current time when anyone so much as implies you’ve done something wrong. When this happens, you are basically reliving an experience from the past and falling into a child state. The reaction is often a wish to disappear, hide, punish yourself, retaliate, defend, or give up on yourself. When this happens, we tend to avert our eyes, blush, collapse in the chest, close the heart, isolate, and sometimes slink away as if in disgrace. The flow within the body becomes constricted.

Shame keeps us from learning. If you’re taking music lessons, for example, and you translate every suggestion the teacher makes into, “I’m no good, I have no talent, I’ll never make it,” you are creating a lot of inner anxiety, which blocks learning. Shame is like a non-stop negative evaluator that thwarts fascination and curiosity because you’re so worried about being judged as bad or wrong. And, unfortunately, trying to prove you are smart, talented, good, and right won’t counteract it; it will just lead to inner combat.

Shame also keeps us stuck because it stops us from taking action – you don’t apply for a new job, tell your partner you’re upset, take a class, try a new venture, or value your talents because you’re afraid of feeling shame if you’re turned down (which you call rejected), you make a mistake (you’re not perfect), or if someone doesn’t want to spend time with you (they’re abandoning you). To counter entrenched feelings of shame, some people blame, counterattack, change the subject, get defensive, make excuses, become arrogant or cruel, or exert power over others through leadership roles.  They appear in charge, but do great harm with little understanding of their impact on others. Addictions often are a cover for a feeling of deep shame.

SOME SUGGESTED EXERCISES

Easing Your Feelings of Shame

Name it. Observe it. When you feel shame, say to yourself some version of the following: “There’s the feeling of shame. What happened or what did I say to myself just before feeling it?”

Realize you are not your shame. Say to yourself, “This shame is not my essential self. It is an intruder, like toxic chemicals, pollution. It was put there when I was abused, left, hurt, shamed, seduced, teased, neglected, scolded, or not allowed to voice my thoughts or feelings.

Think of what you don’t do for yourself because of your shame, and then give yourself permission to do it anyway. This could include standing up for yourself, expressing feelings, initiating a conversation, asking for what you need, inviting someone to get together with you. Having a feeling of mastery over yourself in current time helps counteract the old experience.

Imagine having a new response to a shameful situation. Imagine being centered, confident, and at peace with yourself in a situation that has previously triggered shame. For example, you could say to someone, “It’s not all right to talk to me like that,” or , “Please ask me what you want without all the innuendos about how I did it wrong.” You could also try, “Something about this conversation doesn’t feel right, and I need to end it for now,” or, “Could you tell me what you meant by that? That feels like a shaming remark. Was that your intention?

REFERENCE

Kasl, C., Ph.D. (2005). If the Buddha got Stuck: A Handbook for Change on a Spiritual Path. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

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