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. He was beaten by his father. He showed the world his tough side, but he secretly believed he was the “weakest boy on earth.” The flip side to his rage and aggression was the tender emotions of fear, sadness, and worst of all shame, that lay buried beneath. All of us become scared and ashamed when we are treated badly by the people who are supposed to protect us.
Hardship and adversity, as Richard experienced as a child, evoke hardwired, universal, and biological survival responses in the brain. 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, fighting or freezing. When a child, in the midst of experiencing powerful and painful emotions like anger and fear, is left to cope alone, the child’s brain uses another class of emotions called inhibitory emotions to prevent themselves from being psychologically overwhelmed. Shame is one kind of inhibitory emotion that very efficiently blocks anger 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.