Recognizing my Body Shame Triggers.
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Shame is the "intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnection." That's the definition that Brené Brown came up with after years of research on shame and vulnerability.
Brené is a Ph.D., LMSW, Shame Researcher and Storyteller. Here's what else she found about shame. We all have it. It's universal and there's no avoiding it or wishing it away. We're afraid to talk about it. And the less we talk about it the more control it has over us. Building shame resilience is key in being able to recognize and move through shame.
This post focuses specifically on the shame category "appearance and body image" (what I call body shame) in part because of what Brené found. "Even with all our awareness about media manipulation and eating disorders, this issue just does not seem to be getting better.
In fact, body image and weight emerged as a shame issue in approximately ninety percent of the women I interviewed." Body shame is a big deal. Whether or not we want it to be. Even if we think it shouldn't be. The statistics say that it is. The sooner we can acknowledge that, talk about it and build shame resilience around it, then the sooner we can change it. So let's talk. Shame resilience. What is it?
Shame resilience is "the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it."
And it begins with knowing our shame triggers. How do we identify our shame triggers? One of the easiest ways is to recognize our physical signs of shame. The physiological and visceral response our bodies manifest when we experience shame. Armed with this awareness, our bodies become a weapon against shame. A key tool in building shame resilience. Brené found that, "Women with high levels of shame resilience recognize shame and understand their shame triggers."
Recognizing physical signs of shame
Here are some highlights from what Brené found on the value, experience and purpose of knowing our physical signs of shame.
"When we experience shame we are often thrown into crisis mode.... there's new brain research that is helping us understand that shame can be so threatening that, rather than processing it in the neocortex- the advanced part of the brain that allows us to think, analyze and react- shame can signal our brains to go into our very primal 'fight, flight or freeze' mode."
"Because shame floods us with strong emotions like fear and blame, we often can't recognize what's happening until after we've already reacted in a way that moves us away from our authenticity and, in some cases, exacerbates our shame."
"When we know how shame feels, we have an important resilience tool. Often, we feel shame before we think it. Recognizing our shame allows us to find the space we need to process the experience and gain some clarity before we act out or shut down."
"Women have described various physical reactions to shame, including stomach tightening, nausea, shaking, waves of heat in their faces and chests, wincing and twinges of smallness."
What are your physical shame signs?
Really think about it. Pay attention to your reactions. For me, at first I usually freeze (remember the initial fight, flight or freeze response?). Then when my shame tapes are running and the not-good-enough shame gremlins come a creepin', usually my shoulders hunch, my back and chest tighten up, my breathing becomes labored and I get so uncoordinated that I can actually forget how to walk. My skin crawls and all I want to do is shrink up and disappear. This is my "disappearing act" mode. I feel exposed and vulnerable and all I want to do is run and hide. Depending on the situation, I'll usually bolt for the door or turn to a numbing distraction and isolation.
Other times I'll get all the physical signs of sadness- pressure behind my eyes, lump in my throat, holding my breath- but without the feeling of sadness. That's a sure telltale sign for me that it's shame.
You can use this Body Shame Triggers Inventory as a helpful writing prompt to figure out yours. Brené's findings support the late Karen Horney's work, carried on by Dr. Linda Hartling, former Relational-Cultural theorist at the Stone Center at Wellesley and the director of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, to describe the "strategies of disconnection" we use to deal with shame. Brené calls these "shame screens", the strategies we use to further defend ourselves against shame. "After our physical fight, flight or freeze response, 'strategies of disconnection' provide us with a more complex layer of shame screens." Humans generally respond in one (or a combination) of these three ways depending on the situation. We either;
Move away by withdrawing, hiding, choosing secrecy and silence. (aka my "disappearing act")
Move against by trying to gain power over others by being aggressive and by using shame to fight shame.
Move toward by people pleasing, performing and appeasing.
What are your go-to shame screens?
Have you seen any of these in your reactions? Do you move away, move towards or move against? In case you have a tendency to be thorough (ahem a perfectionist like me) and are wondering which is "best"... sorry to disappoint, but there is no "right one" here. Just be curious and notice. Be aware of any knee-jerk reactions to shame yourself for your defensive shame response too. Self-compassion is HUGE in this vulnerability and shame work. If you catch yourself doing that, take a deep breathe and remind yourself (out loud if need-be)...
I'm getting to know myself better. I'm practicing. I don't need to change myself. I don't need to be any better or any other than I am right now. Jesus help me to believe this.
Breathe and repeat as needed.
Also, write it down. Your physical signs. Your immediate reaction and your shame screen patterns. There is something scary and powerful about writing them down. Whatever the reason, writing it down makes a difference.
The next step is practicing Critical Awareness. You'll be paying attention to any thoughts that show up around these shame experiences. If you notice the accompanying thoughts now, that's great. Tuck those away for later. This week really try to focus on the physical responses first. Think of this as the exploration time, not the "okay, hurry up, I want to learn this so that I can get this perfect, be better and move on to the next thing that I can improve on" time. That in itself is a challenge, and I applaud your courage sister.
If you want some help figuring out your physical signs of shame and shame triggers, check out this Body Shame Triggers Inventory.
The quotes from Brené Brown scattered throughout this post are taken from either her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't): Making the Journey from 'What Will People Think?' to 'I Am Enough' or Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I highly recommend all of Brené's books. In my experience every page is a paradigm shift just waiting to happen. Thank you Brené.