Richard, a former patient of mine, used to bully kids when he was in high school. When I asked him to share what bullying felt like, he told me intimidating kids was the only time he felt powerful and strong.
Richard was beaten by his father. As a defense, a form of emotional protection stemming from past abuse, he bullied others. He showed the world his tough side. But secretly he believed he was worthless and the “weakest boy on earth.” Buried under his rage and aggression were the tender emotions of fear, sadness, and worst of all shame. All of us become scared, sad, and ashamed when we are treated badly by the very people who are supposed to respect and protect us most.
What happens to the mind in a traumatic environment?
Trauma, hardship, and adversity, as Richard experienced as a child, evoke hardwired, universal, and biological survival responses in the brain. Core emotions like anger, fear and sadness trigger a cascade of physiological responses that affect almost every organ in the body preparing it for survival actions, like fleeing or fighting. When a child is left to cope alone with sadness, fear, and anger, the child’s brain uses another class of emotions, called inhibitory emotions, to push down and contain those primary feelings. Shame is one kind of inhibitory emotion that very efficiently blocks anger, sadness and fear by causing a protective visceral withdrawal inward like a turtle fleeing into its shell. While protective in the moment, toxic shame leaves a child feeling broken, unlovable and alone until it is healed.
In order to not be a prisoner of our shame, we need to learn what it is, what it does to us (for better and for worse), how to prevent toxic shame in our children, and how to heal toxic shame. How much shame we carry and how we deal with it deeply affects our wellbeing. In general, the amount of shame we carry correlates with the amount of neglect, abuse, and adversity we have faced. Additionally, the more alone we felt in our suffering, the more shame we carry. Good shame helps civilize us. It keeps us in line to fit in with our families, peers and other groups. Toxic shame, resulting from abuse or neglect, hurts us and impedes healthy development. The mind contorts in all sorts of ways to defend against the visceral and psychological pain of toxic shame.
How does the mind contort to keep shame blocked from consciousness?
A toxically shamed child develops defenses like aggression which turns into bullying behavior. A different child may cope with toxic shame by disconnecting from their mind and body, a defense called dissociation, which renders them more vulnerable to bullies. Aggression and dissociation are fail-safe ways to block intense emotional pain. Along with interventions like working to restore safety in a child's environment, people who are bullied and who bully need someone on their side to validate their traumas and their emotions.
When people learn about emotions and trauma, they feel less ashamed because they come to understand that they suffer for real reasons—bad things happened to them that were not their fault. And when people process their emotions instead of burying them with shame, people feel and function better.
Healing in process
As an adult Richard confronted the trauma of being beaten by his father. He learned to connect with and give compassion to his younger self for what he went through. He learned to experience the anger, sadness, and fear triggered by the abuse. He mourned that he never had a happy childhood. And, he mourned for the damage and pain he caused others by his aggressive behavior, feeling his guilt and making amends where possible. Experiencing those feelings brought relief, even though it was hard. He gained confidence from his newfound ability to process and work with his emotions instead of avoiding them. As Richard’s shame healed, and his confidence grew, his aggressive inclinations melted away. They were not needed anymore to protect him. Instead he recognized his emotional needs and asserted them skillfully, without destroying his connections to others. It would have been good and right if someone had helped him emotionally when he was in high school.
Working towards a new normal
To work towards a future without bullying, children and adults alike need to be educated in trauma and emotions. We need to deeply understand that it is not a flaw to have feelings, it is biological. We also need to teach children that it is not weak, but smart and strong, to seek comfort when upset. We need more resources in schools to address bullying behavior like creating safe spaces for open sharing, bringing children and school staff together to process pain and distress. Men and women with influence—coaches, teachers, mentors, politicians—must speak out about this “cultural ignorance” that people can ignore their emotions and “get over it” without paying a price in mental health.
We learn in high school that we have a stomach, heart, muscles, and lungs. Why are we not taught about the biology of our emotions, trauma, and the inborn human need for safe connection? There is knowledge available to help humankind find its collective empathy once again. And it will benefit us all.
(Patient details have been changed to protect privacy)
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect. New York: Basic Books.
Hendel, H.J. (2018). It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Spiegle & Grau, a division of Random House
Kaufman, G. (1996). The Psychology of Shame. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Nathanson, D. (1994). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. W.W. Norton & Company: New York