Disconnection from Childhood Trauma: A Potential Determinant of Depression and Ill-Health

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, identified seven social causes of depression including the loss of connection to other people.  One of the surprising findings in his discussions with researchers and his colleagues, was the link between obesity, childhood trauma and depression.  In the final analysis, collectively they established that in many instances unresolved childhood trauma was a determinant of obesity and depression. 

Obesity and depression

Johann drew on the ground-breaking research of Dr. Vincent Felitti, Founding Chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine of Kaiser Permanente – a fully integrated medical provider offering not only health care plans but also services such as specialist medical practitioners, a dynamic medical school, mental health services and education and an affordable housing initiative.  Kaiser Permanente views a healthy life for all as a cause to pursue, and is a pioneer in offering seamless health services along with leading edge research into preventative methods and treatment approaches.

Kaiser Permanente commissioned Vincent to undertake research into obesity because it was becoming the major factor in the growth of its operational costs.  Vincent started out by using a specialised diet plan supported by vitamin supplements that was designed to help obese people lose weight.  This approach appeared highly successful on early indications, but Vincent noticed that the people most successful at losing weight were dropping out of the program and returning to their eating habits and becoming overweight again.  Additionally, they often experienced depression, suicidal thoughts, rage or panic. 

Research by way of interview of 286 participants dropping out of the obesity program established that most had been sexually abused or experienced some other form of childhood trauma.   Obesity was their way to deal with the aftereffects of childhood trauma, including fear of sexual assault and the desire to hide their shame.

Childhood trauma and depression

Vincent was surprised by the findings of the initial study and realised that research of childhood history as a determinant of adult ill health had been avoided previously because of shame, secrecy and the taboo nature of the topic.  Yet his early findings established that childhood trauma played out powerfully decades later in terms of emotional state, biomedical disease and life expectancy.  He found, for example, that 55% of participants in the obesity study had suffered childhood sexual abuse.

The link between obesity, depression and childhood trauma was not well received by the established medical profession.  The video, A Tribute to Dr. Vincent Felitti, highlights the scorn he experienced when first announcing his findings at a medical conference and demonstrates the resilience of a man who had the courage to back his research and the bravery to pursue his creativity.

Vincent was convinced that he had to undertake research with a larger and broader sample of people to establish the credibility of his findings.  Through Kaiser Permanente’s processes of capturing the medical history of patients he was able, in collaboration with Dr. Robert Anda of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), to add additional questions relating to life history.  The questions picked up on the 10 types of childhood trauma identified by participants in the earlier study. The 17,500 participants involved in the second study were representative of the broader population of California where the study was done.  They were middle class with an average age of 57 and were employed.

The research titled the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE) highlighted even more surprising results.  Two thirds of the participants in the research program had experienced one or more traumatic events.  One in nine had experienced 5 or more adverse childhood events.  They also established that the higher the number of different adverse childhood events experienced by an individual (their ACE Score), the greater the likelihood of that person committing suicide.

Typical strategies adopted by individuals to cope with the impacts of childhood trauma only exacerbate the problem of ill health, e.g. smoking or over-eating.  Vincent maintained that the experience of chronic, unrelieved stress affects the nervous system and the brain and can produce “the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in a person’s body”, leading to suppression of the immune system.

What can be done about childhood trauma?

I have previously discussed principles and guidelines for trauma-informed mindfulness practice.  Johann Hari, in the section of his book on reconnection strategies offered several strategies that could have a positive effect on the negative impacts of childhood trauma, such as obesity and depression.  His recommended reconnection strategies include social prescribing and reconnection with nature, meaningful work and meaningful values.

Vincent Felitti, too, was concerned that people who had experienced childhood trauma need some form of hope about their ability to redress its negative effects.  He decided to do further research involving medical practitioners who were treating patients through Kaiser Permanente.  He provided them with a few simple questions to ask patients that related to life history and covered childhood experiences, and asked them to express genuine empathy and respect for the patient. 

Vincent found that the participants showed “a significant reduction in illness” once a patient shared their story of childhood trauma with a doctor.  He thought that the explanation for this was twofold – (1) the person was sharing their story with another person for the first time and (2) the recipient of the disclosure was a trusted authority figure who treated them with kindness and respect.  He postulated that the intermediate effects related to the fact that the experience removed the shame and self-loathing associated with the adverse childhood event.  The association of the childhood trauma with the experience of humiliation was broken. Vincent acknowledged that this was an area for further research.

Vincent argued that the ultimate solution to childhood trauma lay in “primary prevention” and advocated for the integration of their research findings into primary care medical practice.  He also supported the development of a life experience questionnaire reporting on childhood trauma as a part of a patient’s medical record that could subsequently be viewed by the treating doctor.  A healing conversation could take place if the patient was willing and able to share their story.

David Treleaven warns, however, that when dealing with someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is imperative not to tackle the trauma experience head-on.  He advocates a trauma-sensitive mindfulness approach.  Sam Himelstein also cautions against the use of direct questioning and talking where a person is outside their window of tolerance

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through research, meditation and reflection, we can begin to recognise the impact of our own experience of childhood trauma and address the negative impacts it has on our own life and relationships. We can also become sensitised to the experience of others who have experienced adverse childhood events and take this into account when dealing with individuals and groups who are seeking to use a mindfulness approach to improve their quality of life.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Understanding Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress

In the previous post, I addressed the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of the observations of David Treleaven mentioned in the post, was the need for meditation teachers to develop an awareness of, and sensitivity to, the presence of people who are experiencing, or have experienced, trauma.  Failure to do this could lead to mindfulness activity that generates trauma stimuli leading to re-traumitisation.  Being trauma-sensitive means understanding the signs of post-traumatic stress as well as having the presence of mind to modify mindfulness practices to take account of people’s needs in this condition.

Recognising the signs of post-traumatic stress

Trauma results where a person experiences an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds their ability to cope and deal with the emotional fallout from that experience.  The effects vary with each individual and the nature of the traumatic event. Traumatic events can include the loss of a sibling or parent through death, separation from a parent at a young age, a life-threatening car accident or terrorist event, separation and divorce, a house fire, physical or sexual abuse or a natural disaster.

This variability in the nature and impact of traumatic events, and the individual’s reluctance to disclose through shame or the need to comply with an authority figure, means that it is often very difficult to ascertain whether a person has suffered from trauma and is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  According to several reports, up to 20% of people who experience a traumatic event together will experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trauma can impact a person’s thoughts, emotions, perceptions, level of arousal/reactivity and mood.  It can be reflected in behavioural change such as avoidance of a person or location, inability to sleep or sleeping too much, reliving the trauma through nightmares or flashbacks or withdrawal from social contacts or work colleagues.  The attendant emotions could be depression, anxiety and feeling unsafe.  Thoughts of suicide can also be one of the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The role of memory and embodiment

Peter Levine, in an interview with Serge Prengel, discussed the role of memory in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Peter is the author of the book, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in Search of the Past – A Practical Guide for Working With Traumatic Memory.  His book is ground-breaking in that he highlighted the role of “implicit memory” and showed how to treat trauma sufferers by accessing the “complex interplay of past and present, mind and body”.  He termed his methodology, “somatic experiencing”.

In the interview, Peter stressed that we have several different forms of memory and the ones that are particularly relevant to trauma are episodic or autobiographical memories, emotional memories and procedural or body memories.  Episodic memory, also termed “defining moments” by Serge the interviewer, though low in emotive content are nonetheless impactful. For example, Peter describes a teacher who acted as a mentor to him and instead of blaming him for poor judgement encouraged him to learn and explore his curiosity.  Other mentors in his life as he progressed through his studies modelled similar behaviour.  This, in turn, led him to a career choice as a professional mentor – so the episodic memory acted as a “trajectory” for his progress in life. 

Emotional memories, on the other hand, “though further out of the realm of awareness” are “very powerful and compelling” and shape how we behave in our life.  Some interaction from the past is encoded with a very strong emotion such as sadness, anger or fear.   The emotional memory can interfere with a current relationship when something or somebody acts as a reminder of the past interaction so that we can be overwhelmed with either a very strong negative or positive emotion. 

While emotional memories operate at a deep level, body memories are deeper still.  At one level, they have to do with the acquisition of motor learning and skills, e.g. riding a bike.  At another level, they are determinants of our approach or avoidance behaviour.  Peter gives the illustration of coming across a former classmate more than 30 years after their schooling and finding that he had a strong desire to approach and reconnect with him.  The classmate had been his protector at school when other children tried to bully him – hence his approach behaviour.  An example of avoidance behaviour conditioned by body memory is when someone who has previously experienced sexual abuse actually freezes when touched by a loving partner.

David Treleaven reinforced the relationship between trauma and body memory when he stated in his video presentation that “the respiratory system is intimately connected to our sympathetic nervous system which is totally tied to traumatic stress”.  He pointed to two books by Babette Rothschild that highlighted the close connection between trauma and body memory, The Body Remembers and Revolutionizing Trauma Treatment.   David also explained further why meditation exercises such as mindful breathing can activate trauma stimuli.  He drew on the differentiation between exteroception (body’s perception of external stimuli received through the senses) and interoception (sensing conditions within the body such as deep breathing or tightness of the chest).  Normally exteroceptors and interoceptors integrate (e.g. the external sensation of viewing a sunrise is matched with the internal sensation of a warm feeling in your chest and a sense of looseness in your hands and legs); with trauma sufferers, “the relationship between interoceptors and exteroceptors can go awry”.

Peter Levine emphasised the need to recognise that we have a “fluid identity” – while our identity is shaped by the past, and the interplay of multiple events and interactions, it is possible to gently, but surely, release the embodied memories and progressively unearth the richness, power and sense of connection of an identity not locked into painful memories.  He has dedicated his lifework to training individuals and professionals in understanding the role of the different memories and in learning to use his trauma treatment methodology, somatic experiencing.  Other professionals, through an understanding of the mind-body connection, employ somatic meditation to assist trauma sufferers.

Reflection

We can grow in mindfulness as we develop an awareness of the role that memory plays in our own thoughts, emotions, moods and behaviour and learn to recognise the signs of post-traumatic stress in others.  As we develop this heightened awareness, we can make appropriate modifications to our meditation teaching and deepen our own meditation practice and reflection.

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Image – Sunrise over the water, Wynnum, Brisbane

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Understanding Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, through his doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, has raised awareness globally about the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  His book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, identifies three myths about mindfulness and trauma, discusses research-based case studies and offers clear options for the way forward.  His work is so critical to the teaching of mindfulness that Brown University has sought to integrate his work and findings into their Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is exploring integration of David’s approach into their Mindful Leadership program.

Trauma and mindfulness

Trauma is described as “the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event”.  Many organisations and trainers/consultants/psychologists offer services, strategies and programs for trauma sufferers. Beyond Blue, for example, offers coping strategies and ways that friends and relatives can help someone close to them who is suffering from a traumatic event.

Mindfulness has become acknowledged as an effective way to deal with trauma.  For example, Boyd, Lanius and McKinnon (2018) concluded from a review of the relevant literature that mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches are effective in reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   They suggested that reduction in shame and self-blame could be key explanations of the efficacy of mindfulness-based approaches to PTSD.

David, however, warns that there are potential difficulties in using a mindfulness approach if practitioners are not sensitive to the interplay between mindfulness practices, beliefs about the universal efficacy of mindfulness and related messaging.  He points out that most people will experience at least one traumatic event in their life. So, in any one room of meditation participants, there is likely to be one or more people who are experiencing trauma in their lives.

David dedicates his life to making people aware of the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness through his book, videos, podcasts and workshops. He articulates his concerns about a lack of sensitivity to this issue amongst meditation teachers by identifying three “myths” about mindfulness and trauma that can potentially create harm for trauma sufferers.

Three myths about mindfulness and trauma

David’s research with trauma sufferers and practitioners in the field working with people who have experienced trauma, has led him to identify three “myths” (widely held false beliefs) that impede effective and safe use of mindfulness approaches. The myths are powerful determinants of the behaviour of mindfulness teachers:

  • Universality – David describes this myth as “one size fits all”.  However, David’s experience is that for some people who have experienced trauma, meditation can activate trauma stimuli so that the person re-experiences trauma.  As Peter Devine comments, “The nervous system can’t tell the difference between that [reliving the trauma] and the original trauma”.
  • Certainty – this myth relates to the assumption by meditation teachers that they will know when a person has experienced (or is currently experiencing) trauma.  David cites a case of a very experienced meditation teacher who failed to pick up the cues that some of his trainees were trauma sufferers.  He maintains that there are some very subtle non-verbal cues that can signal the existence of trauma, but it requires sensitised awareness to detect them.  He suggests that two major impediments that get in the road of someone openly disclosing their experience of trauma are (1) feelings of shame and (2) compliance (felt need to conform to an authority figure).
  • Neutrality – the myth that breath is always neutral, with no emotive content.  David recounts the experience of one person who was traumatised by a violent parent when a child.  Focusing on his breath “reconnected with the need to hide”, caused him to re-live his trauma and led to increased anxiety.  So, instead of being a calming anchor, mindful breathing acted as a trauma stimulus.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: some strategies

David provides considerable detail, explanation and case illustrations of these myths in his book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and in a video presentation on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, which was a promotional webinar for his course for practitioners on recognising trauma, responding to trauma and preventing the re-living of trauma during mindfulness practice.

In the video mentioned above, David suggests a range of strategies that address the limitations and potential damaging effects of the three myths:

  • Develop awareness about possible difficulties for people during mindfulness practices
  • Increase knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the signs of trauma
  • Provide space for people to experience different aspects of mindfulness practice and be ready to make modifications after asking, “What would work for you?”
  • Acknowledge at the outset that some people may have a very different experience to the calming effects of mindfulness meditation
  • Offer the opportunity for participants to approach you privately to have a conversation about their experience
  • Don’t reinforce the “shoulds” of mindfulness experience, e.g. avoid saying, “you should experience calm and peace”
  • Avoid “close and sustained attention to breath” as this may be a stimulus for re-experiencing trauma
  • Offer a range of options for people to practice mindfulness so that they can choose their own anchor for paying attention, e.g. breath, sounds, the sensation of the feet on the floor, feeling of the body on the chair or fingers touching each other.  According to David, Paula Ramirez, a Director of Breathe International, maintains that this choice of options gives participants a sense of agency (the opposite of a loss of control).

As we grow in mindfulness through our own meditation, research and reflection, we can become more sensitive to the needs of people who have suffered (or are suffering) trauma; be better able to respond to their needs; and also learn to adopt strategies that avoid re-traumatising participants in mindfulness training groups.

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Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

A Reflection: Seeing Our Self in Our Children

In our leadership/management development workshops, my colleague and I often have participants identify what their staff say or do that annoys them. Then we ask them to think about what they say and do that would annoy their boss. They are frequently surprised that their staff’s words and actions often reflect their own annoying habits. They are surprised too that this process of using their staff as a mirror opens up the possibility of their being honest with themselves. So too, we can use our children as a mirror into our own behaviour.

Seeing our self in our children

When we look at our son or daughter, we might acknowledge that they regularly withhold information or only provide information that puts them in a good light – and we might think of them as deceitful. They might regularly lie to us or mislead us – and we might think of them as dishonest. They might never clean their room or leave things lying around the house for us to trip over – and we might think of them as thoughtless. They might throw tantrums or angry fits when they don’t get their way – we might think of them as manipulative. They might be self-absorbed, ignoring your needs at any point in time – we might think of them as inconsiderate. They might carry grudges or disappointment for a very long time – we might think of them as resentful. They might accuse us of something they do themselves – we might think of them as incongruous.

Whatever negative characteristics we attribute to our children can serve as a mirror into our own words and behaviour – as reflecting who we really are. Often our self-reflection is full of “shoulds” and self-deception as we hide our real self behind a mask. Again, we may judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions, rather than by what we say and do.

It is a revealing and challenging reflection to apply the negative attributes that we ascribe to our children to our own self. We could ask our self for instance, “In what way do my words and behaviour in my relationships show that I am deceitful, dishonest, thoughtless, manipulative, inconsiderate, resentful or incongruous?” The adjectives themselves carry such negative connotations that we are reluctant to ascribe them to ourselves, yet we might ascribe them to our children. Facing up to the reality of ourselves as both meeting our own expectations and falling short is very challenging – but it is the road to an open heart and all the happiness and effectiveness that this portends.

Extending the reflectionlooking deeper into the mirror

It is challenging enough to acknowledge our own negative attributes; it is even more challenging to extend the reflection to look at how our words and actions impact or shape the words and behaviour of our children. We can readily deny that we have influence, either directly or indirectly, on what they say or do, but we are part of their learning environment – an influential force in shaping their character for life. Owning up to this impact takes considerable courage, insight and self-awareness.

However, whatever negative traits we attribute to our self through this reflective exercise does not define who we are – we are much more than the sum of these negative attributes. We have to move beyond the shame we feel (with the self-realisation from this reflection), to the genuine exploration of our inner depth and extend self-forgiveness and loving kindness to our self as we move forward.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation and reflection on seeing our self in our children, we can progressively overcome our self-deception, develop inner awareness, build understanding and tolerance and develop an open heart. We need to nurture ourselves through self-forgiveness and loving kindness if we are going to be able to deal with the emerging self-awareness.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Forgiveness: Forgiving Our Self and Others

Forgiveness is challenging because it is not a one-off event. We are continually hurt by others and hurt them, often unconsciously. It is one thing to forgive others for words and/or actions that are hurtful and another thing to forgive ourselves for the hurt we cause. According to recent research, mindfulness can improve our tendency to forgiveness and our willingness to forgive a past offense, according to

Developing a tendency to forgive others

If we are able to develop a mindful disposition – consciously monitoring our physical, mental and emotional health – we are better able to reduce our negativity and improve our likelihood to forgive. When we feel hurt by someone, we can harbour the negative emotions of anger and resentment – feelings that become compounded by the re-telling of the story of the hurtful action to others. We can become obsessed with our rightfulness in the situation and elaborate on how much we have been wronged, entrenching our feelings of hurt and anger.

Mindfulness can help us to name these negative feelings and learn to tame them. It can give us insight into our own sensitivities and the pattern of our own emotional responses. In a conflict situation, it can also help us to understand the perspective of the other person who has, consciously or unconsciously, hurt us. In the process, it can assist us to develop a tendency to forgive others.

Forgiving our self: a lifelong process

It is one thing to forgive others for the hurt they cause us; it is another task – often more challenging – to forgive our self for the hurt we cause others. For one thing, we tend to be blind to the way we hurt others – we often will not let our recollection of these events reach conscious awareness because they are perceived as damaging to our self-esteem – our sense of our own (superior) worthiness.

There is also the difficulty of dealing with the very strong negative emotions of guilt and shame, once we have surfaced our recollection of our own hurtful words and actions. These emotions are hard to deal with and require a concerted, conscious effort to overcome them – a process involving lifelong learning and reflection.

Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, offers a forgiveness meditation in her article, Practise Self-Compassion with Forgiveness. The meditation begins with focusing on forgiveness towards others and then our attention is directed to forgiveness of ourselves.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a mindful disposition, an understanding of the perspective and hurt of others and awareness of our ingrained feelings of hurt (and related sensitivities). We can gradually, with concerted effort, develop the tendency to forgive others (for present and past hurts) and, at the same time, slowly develop self-forgiveness for the hurt we have caused others.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Breaking Out of Our Belief Trance

Tara Brach suggests that we often live in a self-absorbed trance generated by our false beliefs about ourselves and our learned beliefs about others. She offers ways to address these beliefs and their damaging effects in her new course, Releasing Negative Beliefs & Thought Patterns: Using Mindfulness to Break Out of the Trance.   Her mindfulness course, involving 26 lectures and 2.5 hours of video, provides ways to identify and manage our harmful beliefs

How harmful beliefs arise

Harmful beliefs about ourselves and our self-worth develop at an early age through a range of influences – parental, peer and/or religious education. Our parents can sow the seeds for a diminished self-esteem by reminding us that we are not as good as some comparative child, a sibling or classmate. We might be told that our academic or sporting achievements fall below their expectations of us or what they themselves achieved. Our peers are constantly comparing us to themselves and other peers as they too are consumed by the self-absorption trance. Our religious education might reinforce our low self-esteem by telling us that we are inherently “bad” and sinful.

These influences on the formation of our negative self-beliefs can be compounded by traumatic childhood experiences such as getting lost in a store, being placed in an orphanage for a period or being left in the custody of one parent following a divorce. These experiences can deepen our sense of rejection and heighten our beliefs about our “unworthiness” or our sense of being “unlovable”. Over time, these beliefs can become deeply embedded in our psyche and confirmed by our unconscious bias towards a negative interpretation of events impacting us.

Impact of harmful beliefs

Our self-beliefs play out in our thoughts and emotions and impact our interactions with others. Negative beliefs leading to diminished self-evaluation can reinforce our sense of separateness and the need to protect our self from others who might further damage our self-esteem.

We may try to conceal our shame or project it onto others through anger and resentment. Underlying our interactions is a constant fear that we will be damaged by others – a fear reinforced by our past experiences. We may have difficulty developing close relationships (we keep trying to “keep our distance”), building motivation to take on new challenges or overcoming a deepening sadness or depression. We begin to see the world and others through dark clouds that distort our perception of people and reality and their inherent beauty.

Breaking out of the belief trance

Tara’s course is designed to help us to identify our harmful beliefs, understand how they play out in our life and interaction with others and develop techniques and strategies to limit the harm caused to our self and others as a result of these beliefs.

She offers, among other things, a brief guided meditation focused on a recent, conflicted interaction we have had with someone else. After taking time to become grounded, she suggests that you focus on the conflicted interaction and explore your self-beliefs that are playing out from your side of the conflict. You might ask yourself, “What nerve is the interaction activating? (e.g. a fear of criticism); “What am I doing to the other person in the conflict? (e.g. destructive criticism or calling them names); or “What am I doing to protect myself and my sense of self-worth (e.g. justifying my words and/or behaviour).

Having teased out what is going on for you in the interaction in terms of personal sensitivities and your self-protective behaviour, you can begin to explore the self-beliefs that underlie your part in the interaction. These may not be immediately evident as they are so deeply embedded and reinforced, but over time they will emerge from the mist of self-deflection. If you repeat the guided meditation on harmful beliefs following other conflicted interactions, you can gradually begin to see more clearly and notice a pattern of behaviour, thoughts and underlying beliefs. Once you have identified what is going on for you, you are better placed to manage your personal interactions.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on our conflicted interactions, we can become more attentive to what is happening for us, understand our part in the conflict, identify our harmful self-beliefs and progressively manage our beliefs, thoughts, emotions and behaviours. We can become more connected to the world and others and less insistent on defining and reinforcing our separateness. In this growing self-realisation lies the seeds of compassion.

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Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Shame: A Destructive Emotion

Envy precipitated by a sense of shame can unleash destructive behaviours that flow from feelings of anger, frustration or a desire for revenge. The envy itself may be based on a distorted perception of the relative beauty, worth, capability or desirability of another person.

This distorted self-perception and unrealistic perception of others can lead to psychological harm for the person initially experiencing shame as well as for other people who are the target for their projection of shame and their incited envy.

One has only to look at the level of domestic violence in families to see the destructive force of shame at play. Bullies in the workplace and in schools are attempting to hide the shame experienced because of their low self-esteem, and their impact on their victims is particularly destructive – especially when it leads to suicide such as can happen with cyber-bullying.

The destructive force of shame and envy

The destructive cycle of shame and shame-induced envy is graphically illustrated in John Boyne’s novel, A Ladder to the Sky.  The contagion of shame and the resultant envy is portrayed in the dramatic lives of the primary characters, who are accomplished authors.

Even the subsidiary characters in the novel are controlled by their shame and envy. Aspiring writers, graduates of creative writing courses, serve in the capacity of reviewers for articles submitted to a journal. These interns protect themselves from the shame of not making it in the publishing world by rejecting the manuscripts submitted by “someone they envied or feared”. As there is a limited publishing “pie”, the interns are motivated to stop other writers from gaining the spotlight through publication in the journal. John Boyne describes this intern group as part of a “shared network of covetous hostility” (p.229) – a hostility towards competitors driven by shame and envy.

Dealing with shame requires self-awareness and the development of a balanced perspective. In the final analysis, it requires self-forgiveness. As we grow in mindfulness, through various forms of meditation, we can slowly identify our emotional make-up, address the adverse emotional impact of our accumulated memories and find ways to reduce our shame and its destructive impacts. This is a long, slow process of self-discovery, self-forgiveness and self-regulation that cannot be rushed. As Mary Lamia cautions, “Take it slow”.

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Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Shame: A Contagious Emotion

In an earlier post, I introduced a meditation on shame. The subsequent post focused on shame as a concealed emotion. In this post I want to focus on shame as a contagious emotion. Like the previous post, this discussion will draw on the work of Mary C. Lamia, my own experience and previous blog posts that I have written. In exploring shame contagion, I will discuss its effects on intimate partners, parents, children and peers.

Shame contagion in intimate relationships

Shame becomes contagious when a person in a relationship takes on a sense of diminished self-worth as a result of the projections of their partner who is attempting to deflect attention from their own “devalued sense of self”. If you value your partner and their opinion and are emotionally dependent on their opinion, you can be strongly influenced by their denigrating remarks and disrespectful behaviour. Your own shame response, reflected in a lower sense of self-worth, can reward their projecting behaviour and create a vicious circle of ever-diminishing self-esteem. The partner’s projection of their shame, whether used consciously or unconsciously, constitutes a form of “emotional abuse“.

Shame contagion in children and parents

A child who experiences distress early in life through the divorce of their parents can take on the shame that rightly belongs to one or both parents. The child can view themselves as the cause of the breakup because they have been “bad”. They can develop an ingrained sense of not being loved or lovable.

Children can also experience shame when their parents engage in what they consider to be shameful behaviour; parents, too, can feel ashamed when their child’s behaviour is criticised by others implying that the parents have failed in their parenting role.

Shame contagion from one person to their peers

Parents can engage, consciously or unconsciously, in shame-inducing behaviour towards their children. An example of this parental behaviour came to light in a workshop group I was facilitating. . The workshop group was continually disrupted by the trenchant criticism by one young woman of everything that was said by anyone else. She was highly analytical and considerably articulate.

In the first break at morning tea, I spoke to her privately and asked what was going on for her when she engaged in this destructive behaviour. She explained that her parents were academics and that even when she was a very young child, she was expected to contribute intelligently to the dinner table conversation. If one or other parent considered that she had said something they considered “stupid”, the parent placed a donkey figure in front of her (implying that she was a “dunce”). In the workshop, the young female participant was projecting her shame from her childhood experiences onto others in the group by making demeaning comments about their lack of intelligence and understanding.

Shame as a contagious emotion

It can be seen from the foregoing discussion that shame can spread across interdependent people or even people who have a low level of interdependence (such as peers). Partners can induce shame in their companions through projection, parents can contribute to feelings of shame when they belittle their children (because they do not measure up to the parent’s expectations), and peers can experience denigration from the shame-deflecting behaviour of another.

So, the contagion of shame can spread across multiple people, generate self-defeating cycles of behaviour and be sustained over several generations. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can become more conscious of our own shame, how it plays out in our lives and how it impacts others with whom we come into contact. The starting point to eliminating shame contagion is the development of self-awareness through progressive self-exploration. This, however, will require being still and engaging in self-inquiry which is often deferred because of the busyness of our daily lives.

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Image source: courtesy of KFrei on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Shame: A Concealed Emotion

In the previous post, I offered a meditation on shame and in the process, mentioned an article by Dr. Mary C. Lamia with the title, Shame: A Concealed, Contagious and Dangerous Emotion. In the current post, I would like to explore Mary’s ideas about shame as a “concealed emotion” and relate them to my own experience and my earlier blog posts.

Shame: A concealed emotion

Mary explains in her article that shame, unlike guilt, does not differentiate between yourself and your actions. With a sense of guilt, you are more able to separate the wrongful behaviour from you as a person. With shame, however, the tendency is to view your whole self as “bad”, thus leading to a very strong desire to hide yourself through withdrawal or to mask your uncomfortable feelings of unworthiness through addiction to something that you experience as pleasurable.

The shame response can be triggered by many different self-perceptions, e.g. viewing yourself as not “measuring up” in a work or team environment, judging yourself as lacking the intelligence or creativity of your peers or colleagues, considering yourself to have deviated markedly from your “ideal self” or being very conscious that you are overweight and might be judged negatively (when “everyone else” around you is slim and/0r athletic). Your sense of shame can increase as you accumulate adverse experiences and related negative self-evaluations – thus leading to a collection of shameful memories.

Shame can trigger a fight or flight response because you perceive that your sense of self is threatened. You can bury this uncomfortable emotion which may, in turn, becomes manifest in your body in the form of tension or pain (flight). Alternatively, you can hide your own depleted sense of self by projecting your shame onto others (fight). For example, you could manipulate a partner to diminish their self-esteem so that you do not have to face up to your own unwanted sense of unworthiness.

Mary explains, for example, that a narcissist could attack others through blaming and shaming them to conceal their own sense of shame deriving from their “devalued sense of self”. Related to this behaviour, is the narcissist’s tendency to project an inflated view of themselves that they use as a “measuring stick” to devalue the skills, knowledge, feelings and contribution of others.

So, concealment of shame is not only about burying the sense of shame deep within ourselves, but may also involve painstaking attempts to conceal our shame from others through projection.

As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of meditation such as a meditation on shame or a body scan meditation, we can develop self-awareness and identify the things that we feel ashamed about and learn to reduce the negative impact of this concealed emotion on our life and our interactions with others.

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Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

A Meditation Practice for Taming Feelings of Shame

Meditation can help us tame our strong emotions by helping us to isolate the source of the related feelings and identify our automatic response, which is often inappropriate or unhelpful. Shame is one such emotion that generates strong feelings that can lead to anger, envy, devaluing self, depression, passivity or inability to cope.

Mary C. Lamia, a clinical psychologist, explains that shame occurs when we perceive ourselves to be inadequate, unworthy, dishonourable or failing to live up to our own or other’s expectations. For example, shame experienced in not living up to the expectations of others as a new or accomplished author, is a central theme of John Boyne’s book, A Ladder to the Sky. His book also starkly illustrates Mary Lamia’s description of shame as a “concealed, contagious and dangerous emotion“. Mary’s in-depth discussion of shame and how it manifests is illuminating and helps us to understand how shame can induce our own dysfunctional behaviour and that of bullies and narcissistic people.

A meditation to tame feelings of shame

Patricia Rockman provides a meditation designed to tame feelings of shame. Her 10-minute, guided meditation podcast provides a way to uncover this often-concealed emotion, explore its manifestation in bodily sensations and denigrating thoughts, and eventually to get in touch with how we contaminate our relationships through feelings of shame.

The starting point for the meditation is to clearly form the intention to address the feelings of shame, rather than push them away or hide from them. This may take a concerted effort over time with repetition of this guided meditation. Feelings of shame may be deeply embedded in our bodies and minds and we can feel resistance to dealing with these uncomfortable emotions and feelings. Over time, we may have become practised at concealing shame or projecting our sense of shame onto others.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on our feelings of shame 
we can learn to tame our shame and its impact by naming our feelings and facing the discomfort that shame elicits in us bodily and mentally. This growth in self-awareness, a progressive unveiling of ourselves, can replace shame with kind attention, and build resilience.

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Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.