Shame Attack


Sitting there, doubled over, hot with shame attacking, hands pressed against her face, writhing, Carol’s cries expressed her agony. She’s experiencing a really painful shame attack.

Here she is, in her 40’s, successful in her work and home life having worked on healing her trauma for years, yet once again, triggered. It’s hard for her to realize she’s triggered.

She’s told me many times that whatever it is that goes on sure does feel real. She describes her stomach being in knots, feeling like she wants to sink into the earth and die.

My work as a psychotherapist is really that of a mid-wife, helping people like Carol distinguish between what happens here in the present moment, dis-identify from it so that the memory can be explored as memory, separate from any re-enactment of what happened in the past.

As long as it stays consuming her body in the here and now she will writhe in shame, feeling like life is not worth living and wanting to do anything to shut off the pain.

I remind her, as I have many times when memories have overwhelmed her, that when the feeling is so intense and out of proportion to the experience that I can almost guarantee that she is re-experiencing a time capsule of memory, something put away in another time because it was too much to experience then.

That’s often how shame attacks happen – as a memory capsule exploding into the present moment.

Carol is now remembering what happened in that other time. That time capsule literally gives her the body sensations, the thoughts, words, images, and feelings of something that happened, somewhere, sometime.

This body experience is takes over and catapults her into another place. She describes the nerves in her body burning; her brain on fire.

Once she can re-orient to being in the office with me, she can begin to dis-identify from the intensity, acknowledging that what just happened might be about the past.

I ask her if she can bring her attention to the burning – to mindfully notice without being overwhelmed by it. She’s tentative, scared to be consumed again.

I remind her that she can learn how to enter these spaces, she can go as close as she needs to learn about it without being hi-jacked by it.

If it feels right, I tell her, can she take a few minutes to let it burn and see what happens next? It intensifies, she says, her body tremoring.

I see the contraction in her torso as her body quivers. Then I watch her body relax, her eyes open, and she looks at me. It’s easier, she reports, but still there. I nod.

Sometimes it takes some time. She takes a big breath, looks at me with tears as she reconnects with the body experience. This is what it was like, Carol stutters.

Her body is talking to her. She might not have the narrative for the experience, but her body is telling her something. We might not ever really “know” what happened.

Whatever happened is excruciating to deal with now – what on earth was it like to deal with when she has less resources, mentally, psychologically, physically?

Carol’s belly shakes again and she starts to cry. I ask her what’s happening? Just tears, she says, there’s no story to it.

Having no narrative memory is often the case. Sometimes the body is letting the body memory go through sensations like shaking, quivering, tremors.

Often people reach for stories, reasons for why this is happening. We feel the need for explanation. I understand that.

Sometimes the story, the meaning evolves out of the body experience, sometimes there is no story. The best explanation might be that you are experiencing something that you couldn’t experience when you were younger before you had the capacity to shape experience into meaning.

If we can get close to them, without shutting them off, or being overwhelmed by them, our bodies actually relax and feel more ease.

Which is where Carol ended up. God, she says as she shakes her head, this is so intense. It is.

And if it is this intense now I say to her, imagine what it must have been like when you were younger. If it’s this bad now, it must have been impossible to hold then. No wonder you set it aside for another day.

It’s actually a really smart strategy. We just have to remember that when we get triggered the next time – and your body speaks it’s own language again.

She nods silently as she moves back into her 46 year old body. Holy @#*%, Carol says, shaking her head. This is hard. Yes, I acknowledge. It is really hard.

It is hard to enter those spaces if you don’t have the capacity to witness. Without that you will be overwhelmed, catapulted back into what Bessel van der Kolk called, the nameless horror.

With the shame less crippling, I asked Carol, what happened? How did you get triggered? What were the facts? I have seen firsthand the body experience, but tell me, what were the facts?

It was really quite simple, Carol said.

She went to visit a friend who was busy. This friend had been a really good, close friend for years and had taken a new job a year ago and was working hard.

Carol said on the surface everything looked good, but she couldn’t connect with her friend. There was all this surface chatting but nothing deeper. It was really hard for Carol.

Before the visit was over there was some moments of real contact so Carol left feeling better, so she was doubly surprised to have the shame rolling up her body on the way home.

We now had the facts of the situation as it happened in the present. So, why had her body wracked with shame?

Now that Carol had some internal space from the sensation and could witness the sensation with some mindfulness, she took a breath and reconnected with the sensation. “It feels so intense, I could throw up,” she tells me with her eyes closed. “Is it okay to stay with it?” I ask her.

She nods. “It’s here.” She uses a hand to indicatew here it is in her chest.

I watch her shoulders relax and soften and known… without hearing form her, that something has shifted. She’s no longer caught in the internal quagmire. She’s able to notice it, without being it.

“What’s happening now?” I ask her. She reports from inside herself that hse has an image of herself holding this little swadddled child, wrapped in blankers.

Carol says it feels like it’s burning with shame. “How do you know that?” I ask her. She says, “I feel it in my body, but it feels like it’s her body…. it’s weird.” “Okay to stay with it?” I ask her again. She nods.

Carol murmurs to me, I’m just telling her it’ll be okay. I’m here with her. Somehow Carol is picking up that this child didn’t feel wanted, that no one wanted her. No one wanted to hold her, cradle her, care for her.

Carol’s face becomes beautific as she stays inside, then she tells me that she’s letting this child know that even if no one else wants her, Carol wants her. Carol wants her very much.

I watch this internal scene unfold. Carol’s body softens even more, tension leaving her shoulders.

My heart softens as I watch her. The transformation from the beginning of the session to this moment moves me deeply.

I know, and I will remind Carol, that that internal part of her needs to be tended to frequently. The shame Carol ends up feeling seems to be this tiny part trying to communicate with Carol, trying to get her attention, crying to love and care.

The historical accuracy of Carol’s experience may always be ambiguous. That’s not what I am most interested in.

What I want for Carol is for her not to be crippled by this toxic shame in her future. She’s had it for years.

As we traced it later in other sessions she’s been able to stitch together the moments of shame with times when she needed to be loved but was too ashamed of that need to do anything about it.

Perhaps now she’ll be able to take that experience and use it as a red flag.

Maybe now, when she starts feeling the earlier sensations she might be able to give herself some love and attention. It could come from taking a moment to be with the image of this little swaddled baby, offering it words, images, sounds, internal felt sense of being held and cared for.

What I know from other clients is that as Carol tends to her process, at some point, that swaddled baby will either not need as much attention, or won’t be there at all.

As one of my clients said about her internal experience – that part just grew up and didn’t need the same attention.

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2 Responses to “Shame Attack”

  1. I’m just embarking on my mindfulness journey. I too have traumas in my past life about which I could never tell the story – I just don’t understand what went on – all that remains is the pain. Carol’s story reassured me that it is worth persevering with the meditation practice. Even if the pain is too overwhelming to deal with all at once I can chip away at it by understanding that what happened was in the past. It has no power over me now, in this moment, if I have the courage to look at it.

    • Your words are powerful, Michelle. It is definitely worth perservering. Meditation is not designed to just bring quiet and ease. It’s one of the best tools for moving through difficulty. Chipping away at what is held in the pain is a much better way of dealing with things than trying to plunge head first into the pain.

      Wishing you lots of support, love, and continued courage in your journey. Deirdre

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