Shame and Empathy – September 2011
This morning I woke up with the sense that my lungs were unable to expand. It was like the world was a vacuum, sucking the air out of my body, and every breath felt like a struggle to get some oxygen.
“And what emotion is this?” I asked myself. “Shame.” I answered.
It was one of those rare mornings when Matt, my husband, who loves to work out more than he loves to sleep, was at home.
Remembering that we are beings who are biologically constructed to find solace in one another, rather than trying to gut it out on our own, I asked for help. (I actually do have to reassure myself with these kinds of strangely formal arguments, since my attachment-based expectation is that I am essentially on my own and no one will be able to help me.)
“Back in the springtime, when we got the diagnosis of my mother’s cancer, I was invited to make a presentation this weekend, and I put it on my calendar wrong. Now people are expecting me on Sunday, and that’s when we’re driving to Seattle to be with my mom, who is making her special mushroom crepes for Nick for what is probably going to be the last time. I have cancelled the presentation, and now I feel so ashamed that I have let people down.”
“Are you devastated because you really like to do what you say you’re going to do?” Matt asked me.
“Yes, but somehow that isn’t helping me. My chest is wrapped in rubber bands and it’s not moving.”
“Do you feel like you aren’t enough?” he asked.
That brought tears. When a small sentence has a punch like that, I find that there is a whole ball of string of feelings and needs that can be unknotted based on our body’s reactions – we can follow the flow of life and understanding by staying connected to what our body is telling us. For the next hour, we followed the unfolding story of my shame at not showing up in the world the way I wanted to, and my overwhelm and grief in the face of death. At the end of the trail I had the sense, saying the words “I am not enough,” that first of all, they weren’t true, and secondly, no wonder I felt that way, with our family currently facing three upcoming deaths of grandparents in the next weeks to months.
Matt started moving toward his day and handed me our little dog – “Here’s an oxytocin hit,” he said. As i petted squirmy, fuzzy, warm Kiki, I could clearly see myself in my two incarnations – my left hemisphere, living its isolated life of disconnection from body and emotions, saying “Just keep going, what are you so upset about? It’s just death. You can’t live without death. Just accept it and move on.” And my right hemisphere, so overwhelmed by the magnitude of grief and impending loss that I had lost all my words, all my ability to hold myself with compassion, and the only things left was the flood of shame and the frozenness of overwhelm.
This is a very old and familiar state of affairs for me, but never before articulated or seen with such clarity: one part of me completely and impatiently unable to understand my own emotional world; and one part lost in utter devastation. I have incarnated within myself an essential truth of the early emotional world of my attachment relationships, and presumably the emotional worlds of the generations that went before me. It is a blueprint for the production of shame. And the way we are learning to hold one another now, in this generation, with empathy and an understanding of our own humanness, is a blueprint for healing.
We all have this tendency to discount our own emotional experience, be it shame, rage, grief, or terror, in the face of overwhelm, since overloads of emotion bring the right amygdala on line with a whoosh and knock out our right orbitofrontal cortex and the circuit of attachment. And the more we learn about ourselves, and the more we learn to count on the power of empathy to bring us back from places of pain, the more we experience joy and ease in our lives.