Coronavirus and Trauma III

At the end of May, when I wrote about my complex trauma, I wrote about the symptoms of complex trauma, and that "I can identify all but one in myself": "The only one I can’t identify (yet) is toxic shame, all others are clearly there, to different degrees."

Yesterday I read in Staci K. Haines's book The Politics of Trauma. Somatics, Healing and Social Justice on shame. Staci writes:

“Shame is the generalized sense that we are wrong, bad, tainted, stupid, that it is all our fault. It is a deep and often hidden feeling that something is very wrong with us. Shame is the pervasive sense that we are wrong, not that we did something wrong.

Shame is, sadly, a normal and predictable impact of trauma and oppression. Because something integrous has been torn, something that knows wholeness has been harmed and shattered, we are left with shame. This violation can be due to direct experiences of physical or sexual violence, verbal abuse, and neglect, or due to the more generalized, negative social messages of not belonging or worthlessness that target oppressed peoples. This violation can also come at the hands of historical trauma and state violence. Shame is present due to a break in our innate integrity and worth – from the very intimate to the systemic.


The impulse inside shame is to hide, disconnect, and make sure no one finds out who we “really” are. It can pull our attention to ourselves alone, worrying and judging, rather than being able to be truly present with others. It often feels like if shame is seen, all will be lost. If we are seen in what is so terrible about us, we fear we will be cast from belonging, or even the possibility of belonging, forever. This is a very difficult experience and set of emotions and contractions. Shame tends to drive many not-so-life-affirming behaviors when it goes unaddressed.


Like other survival shaping, shame has a protective role – it is taking care of us by hiding what is too overwhelming to face, and by giving us a sense of agency in a context where agency may have been taken away from us. Shame takes care of helplessness. (…)”


When I read this I felt a strong sensation in my stomach. It wasn't exactly a contraction, it was more of a tension. And now I feel it writing this text too. This makes me reflect on the shame, and question what I wrote a few months ago. As Staci says, it can be a hidden feeling, which makes it difficult to identify shame resulting from trauma. But the strong body sensation makes me think/feel that there is something here that wants to be addressed.

Lately, I've become emotionally numb. For a while I thought I was better off. More restrictions were coming into effect in Andalusia, and at first I thought I was better prepared for these new restrictions. Then I realised that I was having trouble writing about my emotions in my diary, that I was having trouble feeling. I noticed some signs that I wasn't doing well: keeping myself occupied, consuming more, drinking more, a tense back, and not knowing how I was doing. I felt pressure in my chest, and when I took the time to focus on my body I also felt some pain in my stomach. I was left with these feelings and also felt like crying - but I wasn't able to cry. I was emotionally blocked. My survival pattern from my childhood and adolescence has been activated, and although I realise that it has been activated, it is not so easy to get out of the pattern, to unblock, to feel again.

And now, reading about shame and trauma, I have this strong feeling in my stomach, a tension, not like the pain I feel when I try to stay with the emotional block. But I feel the same urge to cry, without being able to cry, without the tears coming.

A few days ago I found a poem by Ijeoma Umebinyuo:

Healing comes in waves

and maybe today

the wave hits the rocks

and that's ok,

that's ok, darling

you are still healing

you are still healing.

(Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Questions for Ada)


I think now I am hitting the rocks. I'm left with the blockage, and I'm left with the feeling of a very hidden shame, which I still find hard to name. What makes me feel shame, this toxic shame that Meg-John Barker talks about? Meg-John says: “I’ve noticed that – as I’ve shifted from survival strategies which involve people-pleasing and keeping busy, to trying to hold my boundaries and stay present with myself – shame has come up big time.” I can't say yet that it has emerged in a big way, but it seems to be starting to emerge.

Meg-John summarizes a book by Pat DeYoung, Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame. Meg-John says:

"Pat locates most mental health struggles in the strategies we use to repel and avoid further harm – and shame – after experiencing relational trauma as kids. These struggles include depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, and numbing addictions that ‘fill-in’ for deeper unmet needs or offer some sense of emotional regulation.

When something comes up which is beyond these tactics, we probably experience shame as utter fragmentation or disintegration or ourselves. It feels like we are totally falling apart, and we are utterly desperate for anything to get rid of it. Shame is related to self-loathing, to the emotion of disgust aimed at ourselves, and to having a vicious and noisy inner critic, but it is fundamentally non-verbal and visceral: what Silvan Tomkins calls a ‘sickness of the soul’."


I find the relational perspective of shame very interesting:

“Pat insists that shame in all its forms is relational. It is forged in relationships – the dysregulating others mentioned in the above definition. It is generally triggered by relational situations, such as being blamed or shamed by others. And it needs connection with others in order to be addressed.

This point is vital to keep ahold of: while shame feels like it’s happening in our self because we are bad, it is really happening in relation with others – past and present – and it needs to be addressed in relationship too.”


Chronic shame “comes from the impact of ‘dysregulating others’. What does dysregulation mean? As children we require regulation of our feelings by those close to us in order to learn how to regulate them ourselves. That means that we need those around us to be attuned to our feelings – to pick up on them, and to help us to hold them, to tolerate them, and to understand them. If we don’t experience this then our emotions will end up feeling overwhelming and terrifying, and we’ll fragment or fall apart in the face of them.


Meg-John highlights three phrases by Pat:

“People who struggle with chronic shame usually report that emotions were either shut down or out of control in their family.”

“Acceptance was missing, too; the family system didn’t create space where the kid could be confident of an unconditional welcome for his unique being, including his wants, feelings, and failings.”

“A child has to have at least one caregiver who is able to respond in an attuned, consistent way to what the child feels. If this is missing in a major way, the child will translate the distress of the mismatch into a feeling like, “I can’t make happen what I need…so there’s something wrong with me.””

This explains very well what I experienced in my childhood and adolescence. Emotions were not very present in my family, except when my mother would burst out and beat us when I was still very young. And there was no acceptance of me, of my wishes, and there was neither my mother nor my father playing the role of a caregiver capable of responding to my emotions.

I can also connect very well with this:

“People who struggle with chronic shame are deeply lonely, and they have trouble with love. Most of all they have trouble believing that anyone actually loves them. But usually they keep trying to love and be loved. Something tells them that what they so desperately need is hidden there in “love”. They are profoundly right about that, even when they go about it all wrong, hiding their longing behind performance… On the one hand, this is the truth: what they have missed and continue to miss is genuine connection with somebody who understands and accepts who they are and what they feel. On the other hand, it can be a very dangerous enterprise to try to get that connection while feeling so vulnerable to exposure, so sensitive to slight, so damaged and defective, or so extraordinarily misunderstood and angry.”


What do I do with all this?


I don't know yet. But I believe that shame is the rock I am hitting in my process of healing from my trauma. The thought of working through shame already causes me anxiety again, it scares me. And the confinement, the restrictions of social contacts, make it more difficult to work through shame with other people. Both Meg-John and Staci K. Haines speak of the need to work on shame with others, and not just with a therapist.

I also realise that shame lives in my body. As Bessel van der Kolk says in The Body Keeps the Score, trauma is an embodied experience. Again Meg-John:

"The big message from the neurobiological understanding of shame is that it is all happening in the non-verbal relational/emotional parts of the body/brain/mind but that we generally tend to deal with it in the more verbal, rational, analytic parts.

This understanding makes sense because our emotional experience hasn’t been met, recognised, or regulated growing up. We have little experience of good body-to-body non-verbal emotional connection. Therefore our rational brain has had to do all the work of trying to deal with frightening emotional experiences.“

“If we are met with caregivers who are dysregulated themselves – or reactive – and who can’t regulate us, then our own nervous system will go into energy-expending hyperarousal (fight or flight), and then into energy-conserving hypoarousal (freeze or dissociation). If dysregulating interactions happen frequently, our self-protective habit will become dissociating from emotional connection and our emotional brain development will suffer.”


I am now in another episode of self-protection through the dissociation of emotional connection - what my body and my brain know how to do, what they have learned and internalised. How to get out of this I still don't know. I'm realising it, and this is the first step. For now, I'm just hitting the rocks.