Often when we are in our shame (remember shame is that feeling of inadequacy, being unlovable, undeserving, feeling small, being overly critical toward ourselves, etc.) we engage in behaviors to disconnect from this painful feeling. According to Research done at the Stone Center at Wellesley College there are three common responses to disengage from shame that mimic flight, fight or freeze. Brené Brown research has also echoed these findings; she points out these responses often keep us from being authentic and can hinder deeper connections. She calls these responses moving away, moving against and moving toward. As we go through each, try to figure out which one you use the most with your children and/or partner.
Flight response or moving away
When we employ this response we silence ourselves, keep secrets, hid and disappear into our own lives. The problem with this response is we never get anything solved and our shame will continue or even grow.
Fight response or moving against
When we use this response we use shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression. Brené Brown has found that, unfortunately, we often use this response with the people we care about the most. This is very destructive to relationships and can create a shame-anger cycle.
Freeze response or moving toward
We people-please as a way to disengaged from the painful feeling. This response keeps our shame alive and growing. It can often feed feelings of anxiety too.
Let’s use an example to illustrate how these responses play out.
Your daughter has depression and you have tried everything to help her. You feel your attempts are not doing anything; the whole situation is making you feel like bad parent. Note, the feeling of “I’m a bad parent” is shame. When the topic is brought up with your daughter and you feel like bad parent and incapable what are you most likely to do?
Flight response or moving away
You stay silent about how her depression is making you feel. Instead you throw yourself into your work. Or perhaps you find ways to avoid the topic all together or hid when it is brought up. Which results in underlying emotions around the problem continue, you continue to feel incapable and that you are a bad parent.
Fight response or moving against response
You become aggressive and anger. Maybe you yell at your daughter and say some like “What’s wrong with you? You are ruining our family!” This response will most likely increase your daughter’s shame and perhaps her depression, thus the cycle of her depression and your feeling inadequacy continue to feed off each other.
Freeze response or moving toward response
When the topic is brought up you agree with whatever is being said. If your daughter says she’s depressed because of school you and agree and maybe even let her miss a few days if she wants. Not alone do the underlying emotions continue, but it also feeds the feelings of inadequacy and being incapable, which can create feelings of anxiety and fear.
What to do?
Be mindful of what response you use and with whom. Take notice of your triggers. What about the situation made you response that way? What about the person made you response the way you did.
Find someone you can talk about these feelings. Perhaps you have a close friend or a therapist where you can open up about these painful emotions and have it met with empathy and understanding.
Develop a mantra to help you remember to be authentic and avoid using one these responses.
written by Megan Belcher, CSW, Therapist, Shame Resiliency Expert