Chronic Shame

Lately the focus of my learning has shifted from trauma in general to one element specifically: shame. As I’ve mentioned here before, toxic levels of shame are a key element of developmental trauma and/or post-traumatic stress for many people – often combined with incapacitating fear. 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 have a whole post coming on what we can do about shame when it hits, how it operates at multiple levels (cultural, systemic, interpersonal, and embodied), and how we can relate with ourselves, others, and our communities in ways that minimise the potential for crashing into toxic shame, or triggering it in others. I want to read a bit more on the subject to ensure I cover all the bases before sharing that.

Meanwhile I thought I’d share my notes on one book that I’ve found particularly helpful. The book is Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame, by Pat DeYoung. The book is aimed at therapists, and some parts are pretty theoretically dense, weaving together relational psychoanalysis and neurobiology. For that reason I imagine that most folks who struggle with chronic shame would be unlikely to pick up this book. Hopefully my summary here will be helpful if that’s you. 

The full book is definitely worth checking out if you do enjoy grappling with big ideas, and I found Pat’s descriptions of her client-work some of the most generous, caring, and open that I’ve read. She demonstrates huge compassion for all those struggling with chronic shame, whether it manifests in ways that are easy to spot and work with, or a great deal harder as in cases where people attack others or shut down in the face of shame.

What is chronic shame?

Pat points out that most of us struggle to describe shame because it’s so unbearable that we generally don’t tolerate it. We push it down or cover it over with feelings that we can handle, and often these are all we know of shame. 

‘The classic shame response is hyperarousal and a desperate struggle to contain it: blushing, sweating, trying to shrink, slumping the shoulders, dropping the head, averting the eyes, covering the face. This state of shame is excruciating’.

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’.

The definition of shame throughout the book is: 

‘the disintegration of the self in relation to a dysregulating other’.

Shame is relational not individual

A major message of the book is that we tend to experience shame as individual but it’s actually relational

When shame hits we individualise: believing that we are a bad person, that there is something terribly wrong with us, and that we’re personally responsible for harming others. We tend to withdraw into ourselves to address this and/or to protect others from ourselves.

‘Shame feels like solitary pain, and chronic shame seems like a personal failing caused by one’s own negative thinking and low self-esteem.’

However, 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.

Why do we have chronic shame?

So 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. 

‘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.”’

Like other authors, Pat explains that – as a child – when faced with a choice between:

  • Believing that we are bad but at least that the world makes sense and that we might have some control over it (e.g. by becoming good), and 
  • Believing that we are not bad but that the world is chaotic, that our caregivers can’t contain us, and that we have no control

We will choose the former as the far safer option.

‘It’s so much easier to understand, “I’m bad and disgusting” than it is to understand, “Something happened outside of my control and I feel like I’m falling apart”.’ 

Because we’re not familiar with others responding to our feelings with empathy and compassion, we don’t develop the capacity for self-empathy and self-compassion. Because others do not meet the whole of us – in all emotional states – in regulating ways, we don’t develop a coherent sense of ourselves and there is always the sense of threat that we might disintegrate or be annihilated. Shame makes people:

‘feel blank, “vaporized” or incoherent, even to themselves. In moments of feeling humiliated, they can’t speak, or even think. They feel shattered, or as if they are falling apart.’

Dysregulating others

I was particularly struck by the links between shame and the gaze of others that Pat discusses in her chapter on shame theories. This dysregulation does not just happen verbally, but often non-verbally through mismatches between children’s cues and the facial responsiveness of the caregiver. 

‘When a child fails to elicit a gaze that supports his intentionality, excitement, and indwelling sense of self, he will experience something else: being looked at in a way that objectifies him.’

This leads to us objectifying ourselves: evaluating ourselves from the outside as bad, assuming that others are always looking at us, and judging ourselves through others’ imagined eyes. I’m struck by how we can feel visceral shame when others won’t look at us, or drop their responsive expression when they look towards us.

Another thing that I appreciated about this book is that Pat demonstrates vast compassion for the ‘dysregulating others’ as well as for the children they meet in that way. Clearly she locates our relational trauma in the similar trauma that resulted in our caregivers being fragile, needy, wounded, or otherwise unable to regulate our emotional states. There’s a real sense of the intergenerational trauma that’s in play here: shame passed down through the generations.

‘I’m never surprised when, after a while, a shamed client tells me that her mom, or dad, or both, “had a really crappy childhood too.” For their own reasons, they just didn’t have the selfhood they needed to attune to their children…. Shame was everyone’s lonely secret, managed however possible. No one talked about all that pain, or even tried to make it any better, even though no-one wanted it.’

Guilt vs. shame

Like many authors, Pat delineates between guilt (I’m a worthwhile person who did a bad thing) and shame (I’m a bad person). Guilt can be painful but it doesn’t affect your core identity, whereas shame is acutely painful, often incapacitating, and feels as if you’ve been:

‘exposed as a fundamentally defective or worthless being’. 

Shame makes good relationships extremely difficult because we experience everyone as potentially threatening – they could so easily disintegrate us. Collapsing into shame makes it virtually impossible to empathise with others, or to accurately discern what is ours and what is theirs. Guilt is a relational strength because it helps us to express regret, empathise with others, and take responsibility for any harm we have caused. Pat describes shame therapy as all about helping clients to move from shame to guilt.

When caregiving is good-enough there may be momentary shame when a child misbehaves or makes a mistake – felt as a danger of shattering – but there is a quick return after the caregiver’s displeasure or discipline to relational connection, so the child gets the message ‘I did a bad thing, but it’s over, and I’m still a good kid’. In later life presumably such children will be able to feel guilt when they have hurt others or made mistakes, take accountability, and forgive themselves.

However, if a child frequently experiences such disintegrating moments which are not repaired, with no quick return to connection, they’re left struggling alone with wondering who they are in relation to the other. This might happen, for example:

  • If there’s unclear distinctions between having done deliberate wrong or having made innocent mistakes – responses to both give the message that you are bad and stupid, 
  • If caregivers show that they can’t tolerate emotional distress or there is a ‘no emotions in my house’ rule in the family,
  • If it takes too long to reconnect after a conflict or drop in connection,
  • If a caregiver’s care and attention often drops unpredictably – or blows up into anger, 
  • If a child’s moments of delight and excitement tend to be squashed or deflated by a caregiver – this is felt as a painful and sudden fall.

‘When I am feeling a rush of emotion, the other’s response fails to help me manage what I’m feeling. Instead of feeling connected to someone strong and calm, I feel alone. Instead of feeling contained, I feel out of control. Instead of feeling energetically focused, I feel overwhelmed. Instead of feeling that I’ll be okay, I feel like I’m falling apart.’

Instead of learning that we can do something bad and survive, in shame we learn that our emotional self – who feels those ‘bad’ feelings – is bad, and we try to disconnect from them. We often learn to perfect a ‘good kid’ performance, and block out any sense of badness – and the ‘out of control’ feelings we associate with that. As we grow through adolescence we often attach our shame to challenging parts of experience like our bodies, sexualities, emotions, and competence. By the time we’re adults we may have perfected ways to cover up our shame, but those will tragically alienate us from ourselves, and make it very hard to forge genuine connections with others.

‘A person with chronically unresolved shame can’t be “a good person who did a bad thing.” The idea of having done harm may be unthinkable – it just couldn’t/didn’t happen. Or it may feel like the excruciating exposure of a despicable self. In neither case can good and bad aspects of self coexist in a coherent experience of doing one’s best to live up to certain chosen ideals.’

The neurobiology of shame

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.

This explains why people with chronic shame attack themselves with self-denigrating ideas (to at least give them some sense of control), or try to ‘think themselves better’. Neither approach helps because the sense of being terrible, disgusting or despicable is non-verbal and visceral, out of reach of this rational, logical, language-based approach.

These ideas relate back to what I wrote, previously, about trauma and the body. 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.

‘From a neurobiological perspective it seems that someone could live in a chronic state of low-arousal shame that is chronically dysregulated because, although she’s always somewhat conscious of shame, it is well hidden from others. At the same time this shame-prone person could use various forms of dissociation to keep memories and experience of acute emotional pain completely out of her conscious awareness, and also to protect herself against any further shame-assaults on her self-cohesion.’

Of course what we know now of neuroplasticity suggests that we should be able to address this way in which the nervous system has become set up. This is why Pat puts so much emphasis on emotion-to-emotion attuned, regulating connection with a therapist as an important part of working with chronic shame. I’ve certainly found this to be gold myself and now tend to focus, in therapy, on finding and expressing my feelings – and having them met – rather than on talk or figuring things out. Having my emotions met and welcomed, and also having any moments of disconnection or misunderstanding repaired, are extremely valuable.

What is also needed is better emotional-rational brain integration so that the emotional brain self comes to make sense to us again. In chronic shame these connections are often poor. We can tell rational stories that make sense of our experience, but when we can’t connect the emotional and rational brain it can feel – to us and others – like there’s a disconnect between what we’re saying and the experience of our being. This can even feel gaslighting to others as we say one thing but they feel something very different from us.

How does chronic shame manifest

Very few people approach a therapist directly to help with shame because we tend to avoid and cover over shame so well. We might well not realise that shame is at the heart of what’s going on for us. 

Pat details clients who manifest shame in a range of different ways, depending on their particular childhoods and dispositions. 

One client could avoid shame so long as she was performing well and being a competent self, but the inevitable failures along the way felt intolerable. Performance became a way of life, hiding some disgusting or demeaning truth about who she was. Another client kept a double life where he could be a happy enough family man, but on the side he kept engaging in risky sexual activities. He felt split between being a hero who he liked and a total jerk who he hated. A further client only felt able to survive if she was utterly extraordinary, and could never meet that standard so spent much of her time melting down and feeling worthless, but she still strived to eventually pull off something extraordinary.

Another client felt hopeless despair much of the time, exacerbated by deep loneliness when those around her misunderstood her. A final one kept herself separate from other people because nobody noticed her struggles as a kid and she’d learnt she was safer without others, fearing that any friends would – of course – eventually see what was defective about her.

Shame in relationships

Pat also describes an example of how relationships often play out when more than one person carries chronic shame:

‘Both shame partners bring to the relationship the hope that true love will erase their vulnerabilities and undo the deprivation of their childhood attachments. But of course, each partner has moments of failing to understand and appreciate the other. And then, for that other partner, the original trauma of not mattering seems to happen all over again. The vulnerability of wanting to be loved becomes shame and then rage that lashes out in counter-shaming attacks.’

Pat explains that early shaming relationships become internalised – in the form of voices within us that replicate key people in our lives. For example, our internal voices may directly shame us with attacks. They may indirectly shame us with disappointment in our ‘failings’. They may neglect to give us care or pride. They may require us to be high-performing. They may transfer the shame that really belongs to others for their abusive behaviour onto us. Internally we have both an inner critic part who shames us, and other parts who are shamed by them. 

When these internal dynamics are highly familiar to us, shaming relationships easily get replicated again and again in our lives.

‘Shaming and being shamed is just what they know how to do. It’s no surprise that the drama gets played out in the world when it’s what they are negotiating internally, unconsciously, all the time.’

‘Karen Horney speaks of three ways to manage shame anxiety: moving toward people, moving against people, and moving away from people. Each is useful, with a downside. If we move towards people with compliance and self-effacement, we won’t lose their love; however our self-worth comes to depend on being liked, needed, or wanted. Moving against people feels powerful, but we have to keep winning to stay superior and invulnerable. Moving away from people liberates us from needing approval or success. What can shame us then? A small life seems a small price to pay for such freedom.’ 

These paragraphs about shame in relationships really hit home for me:

‘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 they know in their bones (their neural wiring) is that bad things that happened before will happen again: their need to connect will only cause them pain; a regulating other will become dysregulating – will turn away or turn mean – and the awfulness of disintegrating shame will happen. It makes sense that they protect themselves from this kind of repetition – even though they also want to trust.’

‘A chronically shamed person knows in a visceral way that what happened before in moments like this – dysregulation, rupture, or misunderstanding – is too painful to repeat. And so he repeats disconnection instead.’

Addressing chronic shame

Because this book is aimed at therapists, the focus in the chapters on how to address chronic shame is on the therapeutic relationship. Engaging in therapy is certainly a great idea – if possible – for chronic shame because a good therapist can provide the kind of emotional regulation that was lost or lacking in childhood. Given that shame is relational, it probably does require experiencing a relationship like that in order to address it. 

Therapy

Pat suggests that this importance of a regulating relationship might be one reason for the well known finding that it doesn’t much matter which type of therapy a therapist practices, it is the quality of the relationship that is vital, particularly the presence of  what Daniel Hughes calls PACE: playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy.

Certainly it is vital to shop around for a therapist and find one who you have this kind of rapport with, and who has worked on their own shame. I found these ideas about shame and becoming a therapist/healer very interesting:

‘Why might excellent therapists also be shame-prone therapists? First of all, it’s a matter of innate emotional sensitivity. Some babies are born needing extra regulation for an emotional response system easily over stimulated. They become emotionally sensitive children, alert to the interpersonal dynamics that surround them. 

Second, it’s a matter of family history. If there’s emotional trouble in the family, these sensitive children try to manage it as best they can. They feel responsible for the well-being of fragile parents and vulnerable siblings. They spend their childhood offering emotional attunement beyond their years and doing without the emotional understanding they need. It’s no wonder that some of them would one day make a career out of their attunement skills and their deep desire to see emotional hurts eased and relational brokenness repaired.’

Pat suggests that a therapist who has worked on – and continues to work on – their own shame has more capacity to help those who are burdened and silenced by shame, knowing what they are up against. Also, if you – as a client – have a lot of shame – the therapist is bound to pick up on it, and probably feel it too. They’ll need to be familiar with shame in order to work through such moments well with you, as well as to tolerate the times they make mistakes and to model the capacity to own these honestly, and make amends rather than being incapactated by shame. A good question for any potential therapist would be whether – and how – they have worked on their own shame. 

Working with a therapist in this way helps us to learn what it is like:

  • To experience emotional connection, 
  • To be accepted and accurately mirrored, 
  • To be with somebody who can tolerate and contain our emotional states, 
  • To navigate inevitable ruptures and repair them rather than being left in that disintegrated fallen apart state,
  • To be recognised and treasured in all that we are by somebody who can welcome and enjoy the energy of our passion, excitement and joy when it is present.

All of these things should help us to develop a relationship with ourselves which is more emotionally regulating, and relationships with others which are more genuine and mutual, and less grounded in the avoidance of shame. This is akin to Pete Walker’s idea that we need to reparent ourselves and be reparented by committee.

It’s important to recognise, however, that therapy isn’t available to all. I would think that process/sharing groups, spiritual mentorship, peer-support, and other forms of relationship should be able to have a similar impact, so long as those involved are trauma-informed, are working on their own shame, and have enough of their own support around them.

Mindfulness and compassion practices

Given that a problem for folks with chronic shame is that others have not been able to accept their own inner states, or to accurately hold their subjective experience in mind, something vital here is learning how to be able to do that for ourselves. Again we can learn this through therapy – through having a relationship where somebody is able to do that with us. However, developing our own capacities – through mindfulness and self-compassion practices – can also be helpful here. 

Check out my staying with feelings zine, and recent posts on ‘the gap’, for more about how we can practice being with ourselves in a regulating way through all of our emotional states. Again through such practices we’re developing PACE. Mindfulness can help us to hold things lightly, see the bigger picture, and not take ourselves so seriously (playfulness). It can help with self-acceptance as we get to know ourselves deeply in all our states. It encourages us to get curious about our relationships with ourselves, others, and the world. Mindfulness also develops empathy for ourselves – instead of the confusion and abandonment of ourselves that comes with deep shame.

Regarding curiosity, Pat talks about constantly asking ourselves questions like ‘what’s going on for me?’ and ‘why?’, or ‘what happened?’ and ‘how do I feel about what happened?’ We often avoid such questions because we fear our usual shame-filled responses (because I’m a bad person).

‘Consistently wondering about “what happened?” suggests the possibility again and again that maybe feelings don’t just come from weird, wrong places inside… Maybe they are understandable responses to real events!’ 

Mindfulness of emotions, and other feeling practices like focusing, can also help us in experiencing all our emotions: both what they are (becoming more able to identify mad, glad, sad, and afraid, for example), and what intensity they are at. It can help us to both expand our emotional range and to bring ourselves back from high intensity experiences.

Pat also particularly recommends the self-compassion practices of mindfulness therapists like Paul Gilbert as helpful in shifting away from shame and self-criticism.

Telling our story: giving shame light and air

Pat emphasises telling our stories as a vital part of integrating emotional and rational brains: bringing the emotional brain stuff of autobiographical memory – linked with feelings, relationships and context – together with the linear organisation, cause/effect understanding, and logical interpretation of the rational brain. With shame we may be able to tell logical narratives of our lives, but there can be a sense of something missing or it not all hanging together: it is cohesive but not coherent.

Depending on our specific experiences it may be that we tell our self-story repeatedly but that it lacks something – particularly that depth of feeling. It might be that we can only bear certain self-stories and try to avoid others. It could be that there are big gaps in our story, or that lots of stories spill out of us full of chaotic and intense feelings. It’s not about finding the ‘true’ story, or a ‘happy’ story, but telling a story where we – and our intentions, emotions, and self – are expressed clearly and compassionately, where we can ‘integrate pain and joy, pride and regret, relief and resignation’.

Through telling these stories, we’re connecting up our understanding of ourselves with the emotional experience and memories that hold our sense of self together – the opposite of the kind of disintegration of self that we experience in shame.

Obviously therapy can be a great place to learn to tell such stories, with somebody who has expertise in facilitating that. But we might also consider, here, the value of journaling, memoiring in various forms, sharing circles, spoken word nights, anything where we get to tell our stories, particularly anything that enables us to access the embodied, relational, and emotional aspects of our experience. Pat suggests that we might usefully tell our stories about how the following things were dealt with in our upbringings: communication, emotions, needs, mistakes, difference, achievements.

Pat emphasizes that a key antidote to shame is ‘giving it light and air’, given that we usually keep it – and the things that we feel it about – hidden and secret in the shadows. Telling our stories to safe-enough others can be extremely valuable in this way, although certainly we should be careful to develop trusting and mutual relationships for this to happen in. Sharing stories is also another way to get the kind of connection that we often struggle with when we hide parts of ourselves due to shame.

Playing with plurality

You can imagine how delighted I was to see that Pat’s book includes two long sections on working with plurality around shame. She explores how the idea of being different parts can work with clients in general, and she then talks specifically about working with somebody who had a vivid experience of being a plural system

This latter section completely undid me and I cried through my whole reading of it. Pat describes how a client of hers began to realise how they had fragmented into separate selves, and had started to bring those selves to therapy. One self – who had previously been quite hidden – fell in love and went through a relationship and breakup, which was blamed upon them.

‘That’s when a lifetime of dissociated shame broke through, self-hatred wrapped around the core implicit knowing “I’ll never get what I need from the other person. It’s my fault. I’m wrong, bad, disgusting”. A flood of shame shut the system down’.

But eventually, this time of emergency meant that something could change, the excruciating emotional experience could be shared. It meant that Pat and the client could finally work through the ways each part of them had held shame for their whole lives. 

I love the way that Pat presents plurality as a potentially positive way in for all clients to talk about shame (‘a part of me feels…’ often being safer to express than ‘I feel’). I also love how she suggests that those with vividly plural experience may have an easier task than those who cover over ‘unacceptable’ parts of themselves completely.

‘It’s no different, essentially, than attuning to any client’s different states of self, and in fact easier since here each “self” is so clearly delineated from the others.’ 

Pat goes on to discuss clients who might fall under the category of ‘narcissistic injury’ because they completely split off parts of themselves as unbearably shameful and bad and therefore ‘not-me’. They then don’t have any  conscious awareness when they are acting/communicating from those split off parts, for example with defensive attacking, grandiosity, idealization, intense neediness, etc. Recognising these as just as much parts of the self as the named parts of plural people – and having just as much compassion for them – is very helpful for the therapist here.

Pat draws on Internal Family Systems Theory and Bonnie Badenoch’s idea of ‘internal community’. Both of these encourage befriending all parts of yourself – particularly those who are disowned or split off, and developing dialogue and compassion between different parts. It’s vital that we stop trying to eradicate shame-filled parts of ourselves, but instead learn how to turn towards them and befriend them. This is something I’ve covered in my plural selves zine and FAQ, and will certainly be writing more about in relation to shame.

Education

Learning about shame – how it operates, where it comes from, how we tend to react to it, and how we can address it – can certainly be helpful here. Hence me writing these blog posts. Pat says

‘It often helps to hear that shame is probably the most painful emotion human beings can feel, and that not only does it feel excruciating, it’s so disconnecting and isolating that it can go on for a very long time without anyone noticing – except for the person feeling the shame.’

She teaches clients the ‘core story of shame’:

‘When you’re little and you need to be seen and understood, when you need to matter to someone and it seems you don’t, that hurts. Even the hurt is invisible. That’s how it feels – you feel bad, and nobody cares how you feel. So you decide that those needy feelings are useless and having them makes you stupid. You tell yourself “What’s wrong with you anyway, to feel this? Get over it!” That’s how shame takes over when emotional needs are ignored or denied. The needs themselves become something wrong with you. And then your hurt feelings about not having your needs met cause you even more shame.’

Pat concludes the book saying that she doesn’t think that chronic shame can ever be completely cured, but that ‘shame reduction’ is possible.

‘Long-term relational trauma leaves our psyches indelibly marked… We don’t just get over a lifetime of wondering whether we really matter to those closest to us or whether we can be enough for those to whom we do matter. We don’t radically reconfigure a personality built around anxious self protection.’

However she believes that coming to terms with chronic shame can make life a lot more bearable than soldiering on oblivious.

Again Pat emphasises the need for both empathic, real relationships with ourselves, and with others, so that we keep reinforcing the new neural connections through sharing openly with ourselves and others, being met by them, and – when hurt happens – taking responsibility for our actions without taking all the blame for how the other feels (guilt, not shame). 

‘The dark emotional convictions of chronic shame will feel like truth until they are brought out into brighter spaces where compassionate acceptance is the rule.’

Patreon link: If you liked this, feel free to support my Patreon, it will certainly help this self-employed person to maintain some income during these uncertain times.

Plural tag: This post was by James and Beastie.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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