This post is a plural conversation about how I’m understanding and working with the trauma response of fear/shame, and how it relates to the existential dilemma of being-for-others versus being-for-yourself.
Lately I’ve been writing blog posts in two different formats: the regular style, and a plural style, like this one, 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 regular 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.
James: So it’s you and me for this one kid.
Jonathan: I think it’s right, because I’m the one who seems to hold the fear/shame the most. We see me as the vulnerable child part of ourself: the one who learnt that it wasn’t safe to express feelings. When we feel that plunge into fear/shame now it feels like it’s me who is panicking: sending out the alarm.
James: Why is it me you want to talk with about it, d’you think?
Jonathan: In our inner world you are the protector. You keep us safe. When I was little I read the James Bond books and I became kind of obsessed with them. I used to imagine James Bond training me to be more like him.
James: And what’s that like?
Jonathan: Fearless and shameless I guess. Bond is so brave. He never lets fear stop him. As a kid I felt like such a coward: always frightened of everything and bursting into tears. Bond always knows the right thing to do. He’s never plagued by self-doubt or guilt or all of the things that I feel so much of the time. He just gets on and does what needs to be done. I guess he knows that he’s okay, whereas I’m pretty sure that I’m not.
James: That’s also why you love that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the character of Jonathan who you’re named after. In that episode the frightened, bullied, self-doubting kid puts all of his fear and shame into a monster – separate from him – and that leaves him as this amazing superhero type: brave and confident.
Jonathan: But that episode also shows that it isn’t the right approach doesn’t it? If we try and eradicate our fear and shame we create a monster. We end up hurting people.
James: Including ourselves. Personally I love that Jonathan character far more when he is the vulnerable, sensitive kid than when he’s the superstar. And that goes for our own internal Jonathan too.
James: So that’s us introduced then: the protector and the vulnerable child. Shall we talk a bit about what we’re learning about fear/shame as a trauma response?
Trauma and fear/shame
Jonathan: Okay so I guess it was super helpful for us when we read Pete Walker’s book on cPTSD. He describes emotional flashbacks as a plunge into fear and shame. That really connected for us. It’s the combination of fear and shame that we find so horrendous. We hadn’t heard them put together like that before. Trauma response as fear/shame.
James: Do you want to say a bit about what it feels like for you? If that feels okay, describing something so hard.
Jonathan: I can. I suppose that’s part of what we’re learning: that the fear/shame feeling was always something we tried to get away from because it feels so horrific. But actually trying to escape it only makes it worse. We need to turn towards it to understand it, and to learn how to be with it given that we do have it.
James: But gently, slowly, with a huge amount of compassion for how hard that is.
Jonathan: Right. So you talked a bit about the different zones of fear/shame in that blog post you wrote recently. We call them flicker, flame, and fire. For me flicker feels like a slight uneasy underlying feeling, like something isn’t quite right. It’s hard to put your finger on but things are not flowing easily, it can feel a bit jagged, or scattered.
Flame is more obvious. Something is wrong. There is fear: my chest is tight and constricted, there’s an adrenaline lump in my throat. My thoughts are noisy and clamouring, often leaping from one thing to another. And intertwined with all the fear is the sense that I am bad. I’ve done something wrong or am about to do so. The external world feels dangerous and so does the internal world because I’m not okay.
James: And fire? Again, go easy if you can.
Jonathan: That’s the overwhelm feeling, what Pete calls the emotional flashback. With flicker we can carry on with what we’re doing and override the feeling. With flame it’s harder, but we can manage it. With fire there’s no chance.
James: How does it feel?
Jonathan: It’s the worst. I feel like, locked back into me I guess, this side of me: the vulnerable little boy. It’s total panic. I feel incredibly small and fragile, incapable of anything. I couldn’t hide my emotions if I tried. I’m abject. And I also know that it’s not okay. I feel like other people would be disgusted with me if they saw me. I feel like I have ruined everything. Like I should give up. It would be safer for everyone that way. It’s physically painful too. The tight chest is like a vice. And it feels permanent: like this is all there’s ever been and all there’ll ever be. I’m desperate to escape and everything I do locks me in more.
James: I’m so sorry Jonathan. It’s so cruel that you have to go to that place: that you’ve spent so much of your life there.
Jonathan: Thank-you James. It’s helped to read that other people have that experience too. And what you wrote about trauma in the body. That makes a lot of sense of why it feels so desperate and permanent. Exploring this plurality is big because it mostly feels like only part of us is in that place now – not all of us – so we can access another part of us to help talk us through it with kindness.
Trauma and consent: Fear/shame and others/self
James: Can you tell us what you figured out, about how fear/shame maps onto relationships with others and with ourself?
Jonathan: Yes. We’re not sure whether this is how it is for everyone who experiences this, but this seems to be how it is for us. I made that chalkboard comic a while back. It imagines me as a little kid always desperately trying to figure out complex equations about how to relate to others. I realised that most of those equations are basically the same double bind. It’s always felt like either I can override myself and please others, or I can stand up for myself and upset others.
I remember this pivotal moment so clearly from schooldays. When I went to middle school I got a clear message from everybody there that everything about me was wrong. And I felt that way at home too. I realised it was a simple choice. Either I could turn myself into what they said I should be and belong. Or I could stay being ‘myself’ and be outcast, hated.
James: It felt like a choice between yourself and others: a binary either/or.
Jonathan: Right, and I chose others: I chose belonging. It felt like I constructed this person – almost like those nerdy kids in that eighties movie Weird Science. I created this Frankenstein’s monster of everything I heard that I should be, and she was the side of us who operated in the world. We call her Max. It was like I was hidden away in the chalkboard room figuring out the equations and sending her information about how she should be to win love and approval, and then she would follow the programs.
James: That describes it really well. And how does it relate to fear and shame?
Jonathan: The choice of others over self is fear, and the choice of self over others is shame.
James: And that feels like the choice you have to make over and over again?
Jonathan: Exactly. So we repeatedly get faced with that choice: either be who you are and get rejected, or be who they want you to be and get love and approval. We can’t choose to be who we are because that shame feeling is horrendous – it’s what we’re running from. But choosing to be what others want you to be is treating yourself non-consensually, or allowing others to treat you non-consensually. And the more we’ve done that, the more we feel this fear around it. It used to be that we could manage to ignore that fear, but now it is so intense we just can’t.
James: And this particularly played out in relationships and work for us I think. Having felt that you lost love and approval – at home and at school – as a kid because something was wrong with you, you imagined that if you could find somebody to love you, and if you could do well at work, then maybe it would prove you were okay after all.
Jonathan: But it’s so impossible James because if you turn yourself into what you think partners would want you to be – or if you work in the ways that play the game – then it’s never really you who is getting the love or approval, even if you do manage it.
James: So you never entirely lose the shame: the imposter syndrome sense that you’ll be ‘found out’ at work, or the belief that if a partner saw the ‘real you’ they would reject you.
Jonathan: And meanwhile the fear feeling can intensify because – on some level – you know you’re treating yourself non-consensually: making yourself into something for others, or working way beyond what you have capacity for.
James: So it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t: Fear if you’re for-others, and shame if you’re for-yourself. And this seems to be how our understanding of trauma maps onto our previous – more existential – understanding of relationships. The existentialists like de Beauvoir and Sartre wrote a lot about how people felt they had to choose self-over-others (freedom), or others-over-self (belonging): either objectifying yourself for others, or others for self. We wrote about it in the conflict chapter of Rewriting the Rules, and this blog post.
Jonathan: And that’s what the chalkboard room – where I’ve been stuck all my life – feels like: a series of impossible equations. Do I choose incapacitating panic or do I choose horrible shame? Now it seems that every time anything comes up in our life which triggers such a choice I instantly find myself in the flicker, flame, or fire of fear/shame.
What we do now
James: Do you want to go through an example of what we try to do now, when we feel those feelings? We thought it might be helpful for people to read the kind of conversation that we have.
Jonathan: Yes. So what we try to do is to pause whenever we notice those feelings. We also check in a few times a day whether any of these feelings are up, because otherwise we can easily just keep busy or distracting ourself without noticing it. We’ve started trying to pause between activities and have this kind of conversation before moving onto the next thing.
James: And how do we actually have the conversation?
Jonathan: It used to be like this – written down in our journal – between whichever side of ourself was feeling the feelings – often me – and a side who could support them through it – often you or Ara. Now we start the day with journaling like that, but we can also do it as an out loud conversation. When we do that we sit by the window and talk between us. And – often at night – we do it more as an imaginary conversation. We picture two parts of us in a room in a house we all share, sitting and talking together.
James: Let’s do it then kid. We start with noticing. How’re you feeling right now?
Jonathan: I feel, um, some nervousness, some feeling like I might not be okay.
James: What does it feel like in your body?
Jonathan: It’s not huge: not that super scary vice adrenaline feeling. But my thoughts are a bit scattered. My breathing is definitely shallow: a bit fast. That’s familiar.
James: So we’re going to pause and give it some room now – this feeling. You’re safe here with me. I’m going to be with you through it. And we can take as long as you need.
Jonathan: I remember just before we sat down I felt bad for having this feeling. We’d been excited about returning to this blog post before, but the tough feeling was starting to dull that excitement. It’s often hard to be creative when this feeling is here. I was scared it might get worse.
James: That makes all kinds of sense doesn’t it? It’s tough to be with fear/shame and you’ve been feeling it so much lately. No wonder you feel relieved when it’s not around, and don’t want it to come back.
Jonathan: I guess this time it helped to remember that we were going to write this conversation. So in a way it was good to have the feeling here so we could do it for real.
James: Right, and one of the useful things to remember is that each time we feel this way it’s an opportunity to understand it better: how it works for us; what helps.
Jonathan: I’m not bad for having this feeling?
James: Not bad at all baby boy. This is just how trauma works in the body remember? Something triggers us and the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, so we start to feel speeded up and constricted. And the emotional part of our brain is sounding alarm bells.
James: Can you try breathing a little slower?
Jonathan: Mmhm. Oh my shoulders were all tensed up.
James: We can relax those too. Tell me what else you’re experiencing right now as well as those fear/shame feelings.
Jonathan: Well… I can feel the breeze, on my bare legs. That feels nice. The sun is making geometric shapes on the floor of the room. The colours of the rug look really bright in the sun. I can hear jackdaws calling, a car going by.
James: You’re doing so well. Breathing a little deeper again.
James: So can we welcome this feeling: the fear/shame? Extend a little warmth towards it?
Jonathan: *swallows* I feel it mostly on my forehead now, like a furrow. It feels like I want to scan for trouble you know? Like what if something’s wrong? What if I’ve done something wrong?
James: Mm that makes so much sense doesn’t it?
Jonathan: It does?
James: So many hard things have hit this last year, one after another, and now a pandemic. It’s so understandable to be worrying what the next thing might be, whether you’ll be able to cope.
Jonathan: It’s the hypervigilance feeling isn’t it? If I can just keep scanning everything then I won’t mess up and get something wrong. I’m trying to avoid shame, but it throws me into fear because I think about all the things I might get wrong, and that’s overwhelming and scary.
James: Can you be with that furrowed forehead scanning feeling and feel the rest of this moment again? Not trying to change anything, just being with it.
Jonathan: I’ll try. Okay. I’m breathing. The air feels cool and soothing, almost like I can feel the sea in the air: the moisture. The sky is this faded denim blue. I can hear seagulls. There’s a feeling in my chest now. Sinking. I’m worried I’m getting this wrong. That it won’t be a good blog post: won’t make sense to anyone. That I’m ruining it for you.
James: You can’t ruin anything here Jonathan, not with me. But can we welcome that feeling?
Jonathan: I’ve felt it so much of my life. It’s so hard to stay with, not to just want it to go away.
James: We don’t have to stay with it right now. If it feels too intense we can just focus on soothing you, come back to it when you’re calmer.
Jonathan: No I can. I want to.
James: We’re not aiming at anything here, just hanging out with this feeling, trying letting it be part of our whole experience.
Jonathan: Okay. There’s me and you talking, and there’s this room and the sea and sky beyond, and there’s a feeling like I might not be okay; wanting to think over everything that happened today in case I did anything wrong. My body twitched when I thought of that.
James: Another trauma response. It’s welcome too.
Jonathan: It is… because… I know this feeling has been trying to help me. I know it comes up when I’m in danger of overriding myself. It’s only so loud and confusing because I ignore it so much.
James: That’s right.
Jonathan: I keep remembering this thing that happened earlier. Is this okay? I don’t know if I’m doing this right?
James: It’s just fine Jonathan. What did you remember?
Jonathan: How I was hurrying in the kitchen, and I shut my finger in a door, and it hurt but I just carried on doing what I was doing – putting the dishes away. I didn’t even stop to feel the pain or to see how badly I had hurt it. I had an immediate thought that I was stupid for not getting my hand out of the way, and then I, like, automatically tightened my chest and sucked my breath in so I wouldn’t feel it and kept going. It was only because we’ve been doing this that I even noticed that it had happened. And then we paused and let me feel the pain in the finger, and feel sorry for myself for having got hurt and for being so mean to myself about it.
James: And that was a fear/shame feeling you had immediately? It can be useful to recognise that right?
Jonathan: Yes. Shame for being careless and getting upset about it. Fear at how I automatically override myself to avoid inconveniencing anyone else. Like even when there’s nobody else around to inconvenience that’s still my go-to.
James: It’s so sad to think of you doing that over and over again through your life: in physical and emotional pain. It’s no wonder the fear/shame trauma responses come up so much now.
Jonathan: It is sad isn’t it?
James: We’re finding another way now aren’t we? Gratitude for the tough feelings because they have finally stopped us in our tracks and made us see how we override ourselves. Now they come up whenever we’re in danger of doing that and make it impossible to do so. And that is scary, and it’s messy and confusing at times, but it has fetched us up here, committed to doing it differently, to learning about this experience deeply, and befriending ourselves through it.
Jonathan: I’m thinking about that move from the either/or of fear/shame to the both/and of protection and connection. You know we’re trying to explore in these situations how we might move out of binary fear/shame logic.
James: What are you thinking?
Jonathan: In those situations I feel I have to choose between shame if I acknowledge the pain and express it, or fear if I override myself and keep going. Maybe if I slowed down I could have protection and connection instead. Like the protection of you – or one of the others – speaking kindly to me about the fact I got hurt and said mean things to myself about it. The connection could be – like – letting other people know what happened. Or feeling for other people who this happens to.
James: Like this right now.
Jonathan: I guess so.
James: You’re doing so well kid.
James: Absolutely. You just did it. How brave was that?
Jonathan: You helped me.
James: I’m so glad I got to. But this isn’t one-way you know?
James: No way. It’s really not a great thing to be incapable of feeling fear and shame Jonathan, however you might imagine that it is. Remember how we’ve written about the importance of being able to feel all feelings. I love how full of feeling you are. I see how it enables you to feel for others, and connect with them. I’d like more of that: to learn from you as we continue to explore this plurality.
Jonathan: You learn from me?!
James: Yep. And I’d also like to remind you that it’s not brave to do things when they don’t scare you. The real bravery comes when you’re frightened and still do them – like you’re doing.
Jonathan: Thank-you James.
James: Any time. Really.
If you liked this you can read the more standard blogpost on the same theme 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 Jonathan and James.