Friday, December 9, 2011


Dr. Oz says that shame stifles emotion.

I can see how that is true-- instead of feeling what you're feeling, you feel shame for feeling it. The shame swallows or eclipses the anger or the pride or the contentment or whatever it was that you were feeling before the shame spiral pulled you under. It also makes you distance yourself from others, stifling intimacy and preventing you from connecting with others.

I'm not sure that's entirely what she means. I'm still trying to get my head around this. Anyone have a good handle on shame that they want to share in the comments?

In my research I'm seeing a lot of things that do make sense, under this definition. People who struggle with shame tend to behave in in some predictable ways, according to Mark Sorensen, PhD:

withdrawal:  we hide, avoid situations, become inhibited.
attack self:  we take control of the process of feeling shamed by putting ourselves down.
attack other:  by being critical and judgmental of others we raise ourselves up by putting others down.
disavowal:  we can deny we even feel bad if we can "get rid of" the feeling by abusing drugs or alcohol, overeating, compulsive sexuality, over-investing in work, fitness or a hobby, or any behavior that provides a "lift" to counteract the "down" that shame creates. 

Um, yeah. Been there, done a few of those. This morning, even. I'd say that "Withdrawal" has become the organizing principle of my life over the past few years, in fact.

But a lot of us feel shame about all kinds of things. It's not specific to PTSD. It turns out, though,  that there is a connection between the two, and it might be deeper-- more of a chicken-or-the-egg question-- than we think.

I found two studies, here and here, that discuss the role of shame in PTSD.

The first citation above shows (admittedly scant but measurable) evidence that there is a positive correlation between shame-prone people and PTSD symptom severity. The second suggests that PTSD is, in fact, a shame disorder. 

While this might seem, at first, to fly in the face of the claim that PTSD is a biological response, I think it's more complementary-- if you are shame-prone, once your neo-cortex kicks in and begins to derail your trauma response, you've got some well-built, highly-functioning mechanisms standing by, ready to take in this new information and turn it into something for you to feel badly about. Your symptoms end up more severe than they might otherwise have done because your natural impulse to find shame makes it even more difficult to process this stuff in an objective manner.

And I think that's where it gets ugly, and hard to separate the external from the internal. If you're shame prone, PTSD symptoms can fit into a structure that's already there, to some degree. 

At a party recently, some friends were asking me about this blog and my experiences, and someone asked if I was very different now than I would have been if the accident hadn't happened. 

I laughed it off, saying that my normal personality was sort of like "PTSD-lite."

Meaning: I was an introvert. I was shame-prone. I was a perfectionist and hard on myself. I had a need for control. I tended to avoid conflict. Those are all things I remember about myself in the years before the accident, although to a much lower degree than they present now.

But in reading these studies, I think those characteristics might be exactly why my PTSD reaction has been as severe as it has. PTSD preys on that stuff. Those are the attributes that make PTSD what it is-- isolation, avoidance of stimuli and emotion, shame, fear, control.

These days, in my "PTSD-heavy" existence, they're all still there, only magnified. Particularly the avoidance and the introversion (which get along so nicely and like to skip down lonely roads together, hand in hand). 

Although I can still present well to the outside world a lot of the time, on the inside, it's pretty much just me and the Unibomber out here at the end of the spectrum. We have matching cabins in the woods together (well, I say "together." Really, he gets his side of the mountain and I get mine. We have never actually met and neither of us--introverted to the core-- has a problem with that). 

And as for avoidance and withdrawal, well... I am not agoraphobic or anything. But I can maybe see it from here. Or at least understand it. My avoidance centers more around people and relationships than places. I can go anywhere alone. It's when I have social responsibilities to others that I freeze up.

One big clue, for me, that this stuff is quite a bit more exaggerated now in daily practice than it might otherwise have been comes from the most unlikely of places: Facebook.

I like it.

I mean, it's inherently evil, a horseman of the apocalypse, a symbol of all that is wrong with our society and all of that, sure, yes, no argument. 

But I like getting to see what's going on with my friends, and even a lot of my acquaintances, and I like posting little anecdotes about things my kids say, and I get immense satisfaction from the high numbers of "likes" and comments I get on them.

In many ways, Facebook fulfills every social instinct I have, and I am often surprised when people say it's been so long since we've hung out, because I know what they had for breakfast that morning or that they had a stressful week at work or some other intimate detail that, to me, is more than enough to keep me feeling connected. Actual physical, verbal interaction seems unnecessary at that point-- probably because it causes me so much stress. It's easier to just read updates and be done.

But I can feel another part of me that still craves real connection with others, and Facebook might facilitate that better for me, particularly, because I know how to connect through writing much better than I do through conversation. So I post things and get pleasure from seeing them read and appreciated. I notice how many people like my comments. I take advantage of the opportunity to offer support and encouragement to people I'd never otherwise talk to, because I am good at supporting and encouraging but terrible at approaching and conversing. 

Facebook lets me avoid what I don't like and get straight to the good part. For that, despite all indications of cultural doom, I am grateful.

Without it, I'd never have started this blog.

So I'm still in there, somewhere, anxious, well-insulated and with my fingers in my ears going "La la la la la," but in there. And, it appears, I'm making surreptitious attempts to break free. 

The extremes at which I live now aren't natural, but in a strange way, at its root, a lot of this stuff was natural to me. If science knew then what it knows now, perhaps they could have seen it coming.

My little shame-hungry, control-freak self never had a chance.

(Note: The holidays are taxing my already-limited posting schedule. I try to post every Saturday for now, and will try to post more frequently in the future. I had to skip last week in favor of Christmas shopping and a haircut, and will skip next week because of the holiday. In related news, I have a freshly-shorn fauxhawk and some seriously awesome toddler gifts. If I'm going to have PTSD, god damn it, I will at least have it with cool hair and well-kitted kids! But I'll be back to regular posts in January. Happy holidays, all!)


  1. Your blog and your writing are so cool and so insightful. I'm learning about all sorts of hidden areas of existence. We introverts have to stick together (just not too closely!).

  2. girl, i hear you about facebook.  i've become FAR less social in person since i've found it.  

  3. "Dr. Oz says that shame stifles emotion.  I can see how that is true-- instead of feeling what you're feeling, you feel shame for feeling it."
    That is really interesting.  Shame as a proxy emotion, a surrogate emotion.  A placeholder for some other emotion.  Never thought of it that way.  

    Hmmm.  Your blog has so many fresh ideas on it.  You really are a marvel. 

    "I was an introvert. I was shame-prone. I was a perfectionist and hard on myself. I had a need for control. I tended to avoid conflict."

    Ohhh, yes.  That is a tough personality to have.  I can relate to this list.  Although I'm starting to think my default mode is not quite introvert (and definitely not extrovert), but perpetual folie à deux.  I just pair-bond like crazy.  

    I'm sure you are rocking that fauxhawk hard, Kate.  Love to you.  :)

  4. Sorry I've been so long in responding! The month of December ate the very little space I keep for myself in my own brain!
    I was thinking about the vulnerability to shame/PTSD idea, and it makes much much sense. I think that may be a part of why infertility is a trauma for some, but not for others. Anyhow, enough about me. Back to you.
    I heard on NPR that the VA is doing a DNA study to see if they can find any DNA links to people who experience PTSD in wars, and to differentiate those who don't. When I first heard this I was very intrigued, but then I thought, oh Lordy, this could mean "super soldiers". It seems to me that as awful as PTSD and shame are that in the right dose (shame, not PTSD) shame, like anxiety pulls on us to question our actions. Soldiers who feel shame for what they did get WAY over saturated with it, and any thing we can do to relieve their burden should be done. However, would the United Nations been created without some measure of (useful) shame? The Nuremberg trials? The Geneva Conventions? Etc? Hmmm, sorry to hijack your blog, but there are always these side roads that get illuminated.
    Waiting for the next installment....

  5. Elizabeth Graham11 February, 2013 12:32

    You may have learned this since you posted this fantastic piece on shame, but Brene Brown does wonderful work on shame.  You can start with her TED talk, and then her books.  I don't think she connects shame to somatic issues (I can't remember...) but from what I can tell, she seems to be one of the foremost shame researchers out there right now... and her books are well-written and enjoyable.

  6. KateTheGirlWhoLived11 February, 2013 19:03

    Thank you, Elizabeth, and welcome!

    I have not heard/read Brene Brown, although Dr. Oz may have mentioned her at some point. I will definitely seek her out. I think shame is at the heart of so many of our ailments; even some of the physical ones. Better understanding of how it works lessens its power over us.

    Of that, I am living proof.