Make this slipper fit: Shame, nervous systems and the past

Sometimes if you’re used to feeling something 24/7 it takes a while to name it. The first time I realised that maybe the awful, stomach-churning anxiety I can find myself drowning in is shame was after a friend emailed me about meeting up. I had misread the email and jumped to the conclusion that it would be a burden for them to pick me up from the station and I panicked. I couldn’t breathe and I felt dizzy and preoccupied with keeping the love of my friend. These moments are rarer and rarer now, but I am grateful when they occur because they are often an invitation to witness the suffering of the neglected little girl I was growing up. I see shame as something that happened in the past- it is almost never a reflection of what actually is these days. I don’t think I have any friends who shame me- A huge part of being mindful or cultivating emotional intelligence is trying to parse apart what actually is now, what is in the past and what is passing.

Maybe when I got that email and felt so awful, I went to being the eleven year old girl waiting, lonely and frightened and bored in a driveway, spending the afternoon worrying about where my parents were and if they were going to remember to come back for me. Maybe I dipped into a memory of sixteen year old me hobbling to the pay phone ringing my dad from the bottom of the hill, explaining I’d just dislocated my knee on a lurching Costa Rican bus and I couldn’t walk and I needed him to get in the car, do the five minute drive down the hill and bring me back. I learned early on that asking for favours risked the relationship- I remember my dad being very annoyed that I’d made the request of him and as usual, he did the dutiful thing but I paid for it in loss of connection, in his silence and withdrawal from me. Or perhaps my nervous system remembers trying to talk to mom after her naps, trying to gauge her mood -would my loneliness and desire for company be met with sighs and irritability and snappy snippy comments, or would I be welcomed? Sometimes it was impossible to tell until I’d unknowingly tripped a fuse. I always felt bad for not knowing where the line was- I felt shame for being so awkward and insensitive and needy.

Some children experience themselves as a burden- as too big, too needy, too annoying. It took a long time to learn I was not objectively too big- that I was used to trying to cut myself down to size so I wouldn’t upset people. In the original fairy story of Cinderella, the stepsisters tried to cut their toes off so they could fit into the slipper and win the love of the prince. My drawings speak to the emotional truth of this story, to those of us who try and lob off bits of ourselves to please the other and remain in relationship.

Oliver James, a psychoanalyst, writes about how our ’emotional thermostats’ are set in childhood- feelings that we feel often, chronically, become the water we swim in. I think my emotional thermostat was set to ‘shame’ but it was so insidious, so background, so quietly humming away that it was almost indiscernible.

Through talking therapy I learned he wouldn’t sigh heavily if I needed something, if I expressed a desire or a preference, if I spread out and asked for more than I thought was reasonable. He just received me and validated me and over time I learned I didn’t need to tread quite so carefully, I didn’t need to shrink or cut myself down to size or people please to keep everyone on side or regulate people’s feelings to get my needs met. I could just be. I could live and let live. One of the things I say is therapy re-wired my nervous system. I went from being chronically anxious, jammed into fight-flight-freeze frenzy, outward-looking prey wildly eying up the enemy and trying to placate them by saying the exact right thing to being in rest-and-digest, ‘it’s ok for me to exist and be who I am and move through the world exploring and not upsetting people is not my entire purpose in life.’ Psychoanalyst Sheldon Bach and neuroscientist Dan Siegel both describe the effects of a constantly activated sympathetic nervous system, a kid who is always jammed into prey-mode. Siegel described how the sympathetic nervous system is activated when we are confronted with limits. This is fine and good, it is good to have boundaries, unless you are constantly shoring up against your parents harsh, controlling, punitive limit setting and rejection. In those cases, the free-fall into shame is experienced as excruciating by the child, theorises Bach. He says that is what causes the awful lurching nausea and anxiety I feel when I experience this state. I felt that plummet so often as a kid that I didn’t even have words for it. Once I was a bit more stable, I could differentiate between feeling well-regulated and anxious.

And when I suddenly plummet into the depths of shame I’m able now to talk to myself about it. It is not 24/7 these days, thankfully. I know I won’t be there forever, I know the architecture of the feeling, its arc and ebb. I remind myself that what I went through as a kid was awful, but now I am allowed to ask for things, express limits and desires and ask friends if they can meet me at the station and they probably will still be my friend even if they say no. Sometimes, if the shame is accute and I can’t talk myself down and I’m seriously in the throes of a full on nervous system frenzy, I do some yoga that I read is good for calming down nervous systems. While I’m doubled over in the snail position, I bear witness to the suffering of the little girl who had to sidestep so many parental land mines and felt so much shame for existing. And then I come to the end of that feeling and I’m free to be who I am: shamelessly.

Copyright 2018 Diana Smith

Sheldon Bach’s book on narcissism has been incredibly useful to me on a personal level: ‘Getting From here to there: analytic love, analytic process.’

Oliver James book, ‘They fuck you up,’ is a useful and insightful read for those of us trying to work out just exactly what the fuck happened to us as kids

Dan Siegel talks about nervous system responses and mindfulness in his book Mindsight.

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