Some of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve experienced clinically have been the result of my clients letting go of shame programing. This may come as a surprise knowing that the majority of my clients come into my clinic with chronic pain, sleeping, and digestive issues. Of course, most of these people, when pressed, admit they have mood issues as well, the majority of them experiencing some level or anxiety or depression. However, this shouldn’t be a surprise anymore. We’ve known for a long time that emotions and thoughts drive physiology, or the function of the body.
You see, our conscious minds, while creative and adaptive, are completely overpowered by our subconscious mind. Research has shown that if our two minds were compared to computers, our subconscious mind would have 1 million times the computation output of our conscious mind. And this is a good thing. While our conscious minds are thinking about what we’re going to have for lunch or paying attention to what we’re looking at on our screens, our subconscious minds are digesting food, fighting off infections, healing damaged muscles, managing circulation, keeping your lungs moving, regulating proper muscle tone so you can sit, walk or stand, and monitoring your environment for potential threats.
But therein lies a potential problem. The subconscious scans the present moment, looking for a potential threat — not just to your body, but to your mind and ego as well — and decides what is threatening based on rules created from past experiences. Everyone I’ve had the pleasure of knowing has experienced certain degrees of trauma in their life. These traumas then create subconscious survival programs to be triggered by future emotional experiences.
There isn’t anything innately wrong with survival programs. They serve a purpose. It comes down to a timing issue. The human survival physiology — “fight or flight,” as we tend to call it — was fine-tuned over many millennia to help us survive an emergency. However, our ancestors’ emergencies were typically along the line of avoiding being eaten or killed by another animal or human. As I stated earlier, the subconscious mind is looking for any perceived threat, not just to your physical body, and it does this by scanning your senses and, most importantly, your emotions. Therefore, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether you see a tiger through the trees or feel the emotions of judgment, comparison, or guilt. All of these feelings can trigger fight or flight if they have been programmed to from past experiences.
And fight or flight is only really helpful if the situation calls for, well, running or fighting. You see, your body has many jobs it has to do and only so many resources, or so much energy, to get it all done. That’s why we have two modes of nervous system function we can go back and forth between based on what our subconscious mind perceives we need in that moment. One mode, as we discussed already, is sympathetic nervous system function, referred to as fight or flight. The other mode, parasympathetic nervous system function, referred to as “rest and digest,” prioritizes long-term health over short-term survival. Understanding these two modes is vital to understanding your health, because you are essentially either in stress or in health. You can’t be in both, because these modes focus on completely different functions. Your stress mode allocates energy toward heart, lungs, muscles and your midbrain, or emotional brain. Your health allocates energy to your rational brain, digestion, growth and repair systems, immune system and reproductive system.
Shame is the most common emotional stress trigger I’ve seen in my practice. Perhaps in a world where we have access to the curated lives of so many people, be they celebrities or the people we follow on social media, our fragile egos get overwhelmed with reminders of our shortcomings and failures. Fear of failure and inadequacy, both linked to shame, are fundamental stress triggers for our fight or flight response.
Our ancestors’ lives depended on being part of the tribe. Humans weren’t always at the top of the food chain. We became so based on our ability to form productive communities, since we couldn’t survive on our own in the wild. It was imperative to belong. This reality has changed with the advancement of civilization, but our instincts still exist.
Most of us are terrified of judgment because of our inherited fear of not belonging, which used to be a death sentence. Shame has become a strange defense mechanism for this. We think our own self-judgment keeps us safe. Self-judgment leads to shame, which keeps us in self-punishment or self-sabotage. But consequently, it keeps us hidden from our tribe. Shame is a shield that we think keeps us from being exposed, but it actually keeps us from being seen. We won’t ever truly feel safe in our tribe until we feel seen and known, which keeps us constantly in defense physiology. When we’re vulnerable and allow people to love us for whom we are, we can finally drop our guard, rest, heal and let our tribe keep us safe.
Shame can be a lot more harmful than simply suppressing your physiological health. It changes your choices and behavior in ways that have a negative impact on your health. Not just physical health, but social, financial, professional, educational and relational health as well. Shame results in self-attack and self-sabotage. The ego, which is the part of the mind responsible for testing your reality and shaping your sense of personal identity, wants to be proved right. If it believes you’re no good or not good enough, it will look for and create opportunities to validate what it thinks is true. When the shame opportunity arrives, it says, “See! I knew it!” You may feel shameful and awful, but your brain can still receive a chemical reward in the form of neurotransmitters that can even become slightly addictive.
This “positive” reinforcement can lead to negative or destructive behavior cycles that mitigate any conscious work you do to create physical, mental, relational or financial health. These negative experiences reinforce the negative thoughts — internal scripts and stories you tell yourself. Deriving your sense of self from your experiences is highly limiting.
If you want to know who you are, look to wisdom that’s stood the test of time. Read sacred texts and the writings of great philosophers and saints. Begin by recognizing when you’re experiencing shame, instead of avoiding it. Shame avoidance keeps you from experiencing life. It keeps you on the sidelines, watching others play the game. You think you’re safe, but in reality, you’re not living, which is a form of death. And oddly enough, exposing yourself to the risks of playing the game is where shame starts to dissipate. Shame only
thrives in the shadows. It fades away when you take the risk to be vulnerable and expose your authentic self to those you love and trust — and receive love and acceptance in return. And that needs to begin with radical love and acceptance of yourself — self-compassion.
Shame is a denial of your intrinsic goodness. Our culture can make us think we need to arrive as fully evolved and realized human beings, but becoming your higher self is a process. A flower doesn’t start off a flower in full bloom. It begins as a seed, then a sapling pushing through the dirt, then a flower beginning to unfold its leaves, and eventually a flower in full bloom before it shrivels back into the dirt. At every step of the process, the flower is perfectly a flower. Most of us are just beginning to push through the soil, yet we feel inadequate that we’re not at our full potential. The truth of our current state is that we are unfolding the perfection within. Shame stunts this growth, and compassion fertilizes it. When you feel ashamed, recognize it. Don’t judge it, and don’t suppress it. Suppression perpetuates the cycle and can even energize it. Instead, tell yourself you’re unfolding the perfection within, forgive yourself, love and accept yourself, and do the same for others.
If you would like to learn more about Dr. Hyde and what his practice is about check out his website: www.drjakehyde.com or listen to his podcast with his brother, ALSO a Dr. Hyde, The Cultivated Being.