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Fear/Shame and the Anatomy of a Trauma Response

Fear/Shame and the Anatomy of a Trauma Response

In this post I want to share some connections I’ve made as I experience the kinds of trauma response that I’ve been writing about here lately: the flicker, flame, and fire of post traumatic stress. Specifically I want to write about the combination of fear and shame which seem to occur when we’re triggered or reactive, and how that relates to the existential tension between self and other. 

Lately I’ve been writing blog posts in two different formats: the regular style, like this one, and a plural style, where I work things through in conversation between two different sides of myself. This time, as an experiment, I’ve tried writing on the same theme in both formats. You can read the plural conversation version here. Feel free to pick just the format that works best for you. Or, if you like, you can read them both. I’m fascinated by the different potentials opened up by the different formats, and how they compare for readers, so feel free to give me any feedback about that.

One of the big ideas in Pete Walker’s book on cPTSD is the sense of trauma response as a combination of fear and shame. That’s very much how it is for me. When something triggers me I tend to feel somewhere on the spectrum from worry to utter panic, combined with somewhere on the spectrum from self-doubt to self-loathing. In emotional flashback I’m convinced that I’m in huge danger and that I’m a terrible person.

Understanding that this combination of feelings probably underlies most of my stuck patterns in how I relate to myself, others, my work, and the world. I’ve tried to get curious about them and to make it my business to understand the anatomy of my trauma response. Of course my experience and understanding may not resonate for everybody, but I expect these conclusions apply beyond just me.

Fear/shame and other/self

As I’ve mentioned before it’s not always possible – or advisable – to sit in the overwhelm of an emotional flashback. But what I have been doing is to pause when I feel the flicker or flame of fear/shame coming up and to ask myself what might be happening. I’ve also been reflecting after a period of flashback about what might’ve been going on for me.

Where I’ve got to is that nearly always a triggering situation had occurred which I felt required to make a choice between myself and somebody else: either I could choose the other person and hurt myself, or I could choose myself and hurt somebody else. Sometimes it’s more that a memory of a previous such time has come up, or that I’m imagining a future situation which might put me in that predicament.

This self/other dilemma is something I’ve had a sense of for years. The new piece is to map this onto the fear/shame element of trauma. I feel the combination of fear and shame in those moments because choosing the other person over myself equals fear, and choosing myself over the other person equals shame. This makes it feel an unbearable choice.

The fear(others)/shame(self) spectrum

It seems extraordinary how this simple binary – fear(others)/shame(self) – underlies practically everything I struggle with: from something as massive as a break-up to something as tiny as deciding what task to do next today.

Big fear(others)/shame(self) moments

When I’m deciding whether to walk away from a relationship which is hurting me, it generally manifests as a sense of terror at the possibility of remaining in such pain in order to avoid hurting the other person and a sense of debilitating shame at imagining being the person who walks away and hurts the person they love. A similarly huge fear/shame response generally accompanies finding out that something I did in my work hurt somebody.

Small fear(others)/shame(self) moments

When I’m trying to figure out what task to do next today, sometimes the choice of doing something ‘productive’ like writing a blog post or answering emails can be accompanied by an almost imperceptible frisson of fear that I’m falling into my old habit of overriding my self-consent in order to do something for others. The choice of doing something ‘unproductive’ and gentle for myself – like watching TV or going for a walk – can be accompanied by a similarly tiny frisson of shame that this behaviour – and therefore I – am somehow bad, or at least less good than the alternative. A similarly small fear/shame response might flicker up, for example, when deciding which book to read next: one I think I should read or a ‘guilty pleasure’.

I could probably map pretty much every situation I struggle with on a spectrum between these big and small examples.

Where does the fear(others)/shame(self) binary come from?

I think there are many strands which come together to create – and reinforce – this fear(others)/shame(self) binary. 

In one sense it is a human tension, which existential philosophers in particular have written a good deal about. Sartre’s famous quote ‘hell is other people’ is all about his notion that we’re constantly forced to choose between objectifying ourselves for other people, and/or objectifying other people for ourselves. This is something I’ve written about a lot in my work on conflict. I love Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax quote for this: ‘Sin is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.’

In another sense this fear(others)/shame(self) binary is a product of – at least exacerbated by – neoliberal capitalism, because within this system we are trained to experience ourselves as atomised individuals in competition with others. More from me and Justin about how that works here.

Finally the trauma component of the fear(others)/shame(self) binary is important. Pete Walker – and others – locate the starting points of developmental trauma in the lack – or loss – of protection and care. This is another binary that we could see as mapping onto fear(others)/shame(self). When we are protected we are safe enough and have no need to fear others. When we are cared for we know that we are okay in who we are and have no need to feel shame.

Personally I have a memory of a pivotal moment when I became locked into this fear/shame binary way of thinking, feeling, and relating. At nine I moved to a school where it seemed that I was being taught, daily, by my peers that everything about me was unacceptable. My struggles with this were hard for people at home so I felt increasingly unacceptable there too. 

I realised that either I could hide this unacceptable person that I was and shape myself into what others said I should be, in order to belong and be approved of. Or I could ‘be myself’ and continue to feel isolated, unwelcome, and disliked. I chose the former: fear(others) over shame(self). Interestingly I’ve since had conversations with people who felt faced with the same choice and went the other way. At that age it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to find options beyond the binary.

The four Fs and the fear(others)/shame(self) binary

If we see the four F trauma responses – fight, flight, freeze and fawn – as habitual styles of relating to ourselves, others, and the world, then we can also see them as four different ways of trying to avoid those horrible fear/shame feelings. Of course most of us employ a combination of these different strategies.

  • In fight we blame others, attack out, and attempt to control others so we don’t risk anyone overriding us (fear) and don’t have to feel at all responsible ourselves (shame).
  • In flight we keep busy doing things. This means we don’t have to slow down and feel the fear that we may be prioritising winning other’s approval over our own needs. It means we avoid addressing the shame that means no amount of ‘success’ will ever mean we’re good enough.
  • In freeze we distract ourselves constantly from having to face the fear that we might not be protecting ourselves well enough, and the shame that we might not be okay. That may be with social media, TV, food, alcohol, or whatever our mode of avoidance is.
  • In fawn we become what we think we need to be in order to please others. We hope this will mean we can avoid the shame of realising we’re not really acceptable. We hope that if we are ‘good enough’ then other people won’t hurt us and we won’t have to feel that fear.

But none of these strategies work. In fact they all fetch us right back in the horrendous fear/shame place that we were trying so hard to avoid.

  • Fighters will probably hear more and more from others that we hurt people and are ‘bad’ (shame). The more we defend against hearing this, the louder and more attacking and intrusive those voices are likely to get (fear).
  • Fleers are going to have to go faster and faster, overriding ourselves more and more, in an attempt to outrun our feelings. We may well start to feel the underlying fear of what we’re doing to ourselves. We risk overstretching, burnout and the accompanying shame of not being able to do anything any more.
  • With freeze, the fear tends to get louder and louder the more we distract ourselves because we’re not listening to what it’s telling us about how we’re failing to protect ourselves. We may also face the shame of realising that we haven’t been there for others.
  • Fawn folks are going to keep fetching back up in fear/shame because we can’t sustain turning ourselves into something for others long term. However hard we try to be good, others will hurt us, indeed we may be particularly drawn to relationships in which that’s likely to happen. And however much we try to be something pleasing and good for others it will be unsustainable and they will see what we’ve been trying to hide.

You could also see it that in the forced binary choice between fear(others) and shame(self), flight and fawn choose fear(others) over shame(self), and fight and freeze choose shame(self) over fear(others). Flight and fawn are both more about being-for-others in order to get approval, recognition, love, or belonging. Fight and freeze are both more about being-for-yourself either by blaming, attacking or controlling others, or by disappearing into self distraction or avoidance. 

So perhaps fight and fawn get used to managing the fear which comes when overriding themselves for others. They find the shame which comes with standing up for themselves intolerable. For fight and freeze it’s the other way round. Certainly as I’ve moved towards balancing my go-to strategies of flight with freeze, and fawn with fight, I’ve noticed a tip towards more shame and less fear, rather than the other way around.

So what can we do?

So far so bleak right?! There’s already a lot in my other posts about how we can notice the flicker, flame, and fire of the fear/shame response, work with emotional flashbacks, and shift our stuck patterns. Here I want to focus on two things which I haven’t written so much about yet, but which have been hugely helpful to me recently: welcoming fear/shame with gratitude, and shifting out of fear/shame logic.

Welcoming fear/shame with gratitude

This week it dawned on me that pretty much everything I’d been doing till this point was still with the aim of stopping the fear/shame response. This is pretty understandable given that the feeling feels utterly horrendous to me. When the flicker of fear/shame arises, a previously pleasant day becomes tinged with doom. There is an additional layer of fear that it might get worse, and shame that that could mean I won’t be able do the things I had promised to others. When a full flashback hits I feel small and incapable, terrible about myself, and under huge threat. Who would want to feel like that?

Of course I’m also an advocate of staying with feelings, but the trauma literature has helped me to see that this is not always the best strategy with trauma responses. Staying with intense trauma feelings can be retraumatizing and keep your body and brain locked in trauma responses, making it more – rather than less – likely that it will keep happening.

However, trying to avoid these feelings, freaking out at the first sign of them, and attempting to get rid of them was not working for me either, to say the least! Conversations with my therapist and listening to a new Pema Chödrön audio got me thinking about whether there might be another way. When the feelings were up I decided to try to welcome them warmly as part of the full experience that I was having in that moment. I guess it’s that idea that I’ve written about before of holding everything in an open hand rather than grasping hold of it or hurling it away.

What this looked like for me was pausing the moment I felt the flicker, flame, or fire of fear/shame and sitting – often in my window – trying to be with the whole moment that I was in (the sounds, the sensations, the thoughts, the feelings). This moment included – but wasn’t restricted to – the fear/shame element which often manifested as churning compulsive thoughts, a tight chest, an adrenaline lump in the throat, a sense of contraction, and feelings of anxiety and being a bad person. I tried to welcome those aspects of my experience – while not making them the entirety of my experience. I even said ‘you’re welcome here’ and tried to hold them with warmth.

What surprised me was a sense of gratitude that started to come up. I realised that previously in my life I have managed to cover over this fear/shame feeling with my four F strategies, stuck patterns, etc. Now the feeling is so strong that it’s having none of it! Also it seems to have flipped from a preference for fear(others) over shame(self) to the opposite. The fear I feel every time I risk overriding myself – even in small ways – is so intense that I can’t do it to myself any more. This means that I can’t abandon myself, even if it does mean feeling a lot of shame when I set boundaries or walk away from a situation that is hurting me. 

It feels like this fear/shame feeling is protecting me: warning me when a situation has arisen where I risk hurting myself. Maybe it has always been trying to protect me. I can feel grief for the times I haven’t listened to it in the past, and gratitude for its continued presence and the fact that I am listening to it now.

So now I can – sometimes – sit with fear/shame and say ‘thank-you’ as well as ‘you’re welcome here’. I know that the feeling is probably trying to tell me that I’m risking overriding myself in some way, even if it does feel like an overreaction to a small situation – or even to a memory or an imagined event. Paradoxically, of course, when I listen to fear/shame in this way it doesn’t have to shout quite so loudly.

Shifting out of fear/shame logic

The other thing I’ve been doing is recognising that fear/shame is rooted in binary logic. Some of my favourite thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and bell hooks have challenged the self/other binary, suggesting that there are ways to engage mutually with others, supporting each others’ projects reciprocally, and valuing ourselves and others equally. It’s not a matter of pendulum swinging from others-over-self (fear) to self-over-others (shame). It’s about how we can hold all lives, bodies, and labour as equally valuable, and understand ourselves as inevitably interdependent and interconnected. 

This is partly why I make such a big project of exploring how we can treat ourselves and others consensually. Fear(other)/shame(self) logic is inevitably non-consensual: either we override our own consent or another’s consent. For me the consent project is all about finding alternative – mutual and ethical – ways of relating to ourselves and others in all aspects of life.

I read an interesting idea in Jessica Fern’s forthcoming book Polysecure from the attachment and trauma literature. This is that for good relationships with ourselves and others we need both protection and connection. Protection requires keeping ourselves safe-enough, having boundaries, not allowing others to hurt us, etc. Connection requires being open, vulnerable, and real with others.

It struck me that being stuck in fear/shame logic doesn’t allow for either of these things. In fear we override ourselves for others and don’t give ourselves protection. In shame we cover over our vulnerability in case others see how ‘bad’ we are, so we don’t allow ourselves real connection. 

Instead of choosing fear(other) or shame(self) it’s about choosing protection and connection. This moves us from an either/or binary to a both/and. Also it neatly maps onto Pete’s sense that we fetch up in fear/shame trauma responses because we lost or lacked protection and/or care, and that finding protection and care within – and from our team of outer relationships – is the way forward.

What shifting out of fear/shame logic looks like – for me – is, again, pausing when I feel the flicker, flame, or fire of fear/shame. I sit with myself and often try to talk from a kind, wise voice to a more vulnerable child voice: the one who is stuck in the fear/shame response. I invite that child side to reflect on how whatever has triggered me is a fear/shame thing. 

Usually it’s fairly easy to see how this situation feels like a choice between others (fear) or myself (shame). Generally naming this, in itself, results in feeling a bit more space or expansiveness around it. I usually try not to rush to any decision right then, but I remind the part of myself who is caught in fear/shame that there are always other options beyond choosing other or self: that this is a false binary, albeit one that is very understandable to fall into.

In exploring how this fear/shame logic works I’ve also realised that it’s understandable to obsess over past memories as I can find myself doing. It’s an attempt to prove to myself that the situation was bad enough to warrant hurting another person, in order to avoid shame. But it’s also retraumatizing to keep going over these memories, putting me back in fear. It similarly makes sense to hypervigilently go over situations where I might have fucked up, or to imagine future scenarios playing out in order to figure out how to avoid fucking up. This is all about trying to prevent shame. But again I can recognise that it’s triggering to do this, which puts me back in fear. 

Generally when I feel any flame or fire of fear/shame I park any decision-making until a time when I’m feeling clear and calm again, perhaps promising myself that I’ll check in about it over morning coffee which is often a good time for me. Once I get to that point I try to expand out to consider all options, and aim at a choice that combines protection and connection. For example, lately the eventual choice has often involved openly explaining my vulnerability to others (connection) and clearly stating my boundaries (protection). If clearness and calmness do not feel possible around this situation yet, I try to commit to going slow and refraining until I feel ready, perhaps explaining that this is what I’m doing to anyone else involved if a response is required.

I’m not saying here that any of this is easy. Believe me the last year or so of my life is living proof that it is not! This approach towards fear/shame goes against the grain of all our habits of avoidance and attempts at eradication. I know it’ll be super easy to slip back into trying to avoid recognising when fear/shame comes up, pretending it’s not really happening, distracting myself, and/or acting quickly to avoid the pain – usually in ways that override myself and give others what I think they want. I’m hoping – as with all of these blog posts – that writing it down will help new ways of being to bed in, as well as hopefully helping others who’re grappling with similar stuff. I see you!

What you can do when fear(others)/shame(self) hits:

  • Notice the flicker, flame, or fire feeling (however it manifests for you: familiar bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, habits, etc.). Name this as a fear/shame trauma response, remember how these work in the body and brain. Everything that is happening makes sense and isn’t your fault. Try to reframe it from something bad that has happened to an opportunity to get curious, understand it better, and practice new – kinder – habits.
  • Pause and find somewhere you can be with it safely for some time (if this is impossible, promise yourself that you will do so as soon as you can, and do whatever you need to survive in the meantime). Slow down your breathing and talk to yourself kindly. Give yourself as long as you need. Try to spaciously feel the whole of what you’re experiencing in the moment, including all your senses, not just focusing on the fear/shame. Refrain from going into a fight, flight, freeze or fawn strategy to avoid it or act out of it.
  • Welcome the fear/shame feeling with warmth and gratitude, recognising how it has helped you in the past and may well be trying to help you now if you can listen to it gently and curiously instead of grasping it or hurling it away.
  • Soothe (if intense): If the feeling is too intense to stay with in this way, thank it and promise to return to it once you’re in a calmer, clearer place. Then go to activities which soothe your nervous system, or wait to address it when you can be supported through it, by a therapist or support group for example.
  • Recognise (if possible): If you can stay with it, recognise how the trigger was about fear(others)/shame(self). Remember that it can be a fleeting memory or response to internal sensation as much as an external situation. No worries if you can’t identify the trigger this time. Allow any feelings that come up to be released.
  • Explore once you are in a calmer, clearer place. Step out of binary fear(others)/shame(self) logic and consider all the options in relation to the triggering situation, perhaps prioritising those which combine protection and connection. 

I have also found it useful to do this as a preventative activity – just checking in with myself at several points during the day, perhaps whenever one task ends before beginning the next. I ask whether there is any fear/shame feeling around, and apply this process if there is. I keep this list on my phone to remind me of the process during the fear/shame feelings when it can be hard to access.

If you want to read about I do this stuff in real time, check out the plural version of this blog post, here.

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 written by Beastie, with vital input from Jonathan.


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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