Criticism arrives and shame creeps in. Black tentacles of judgment grow like vines squeezing my heart, strangling my stomach, trying to swallow me whole. I have done something wrong. I am bad. I am not good enough. I am unworthy.
The visceral experience of shame is hard not to notice. The urgency to respond and fix it is right there.
Angus calls this the impulse to solve and resolve.
How do I change how I feel?
How do I stop feeling bad?
How do I make it right?
This only feeds the narrative. Responding to the internal feeling of urgency adds fuel to the shame. It validates it. It reinforces it. It colludes with it.
Pausing and not responding allows for space and presence. The feelings are still there, but there is no fanning of the flames of the narrative, and eventually, perspective is regained. Feeling unworthy doesn’t mean I am unworthy. Feeling bad doesn’t mean I am bad. Making a mistake doesn’t justify my banishment or silencing. That is the legacy of trauma, not truth.
I think back to the times in my life when that was no perspective. I just lived with the belief that the narrative of my unworthiness was true.
I responded with urgency swallowing the narrative whole and at face value, not challenging it.
You are bad.
Yes, I am bad.
How do I fix that?
How do I make up for being bad?
How do I prove my worth?
There was no questioning of the judgment that I am bad in the first place.
I didn’t realize this was a trauma response. I didn’t realize my acceptance of my badness and trying to make up for it was how I learned to survive.
And I judged myself as weak for colluding with the narrative. I saw myself as cowardly and spineless. I didn’t understand my silence was involuntary and my desire to please was rooted in survival.
One of the most painful experiences of this happened when I was 18. I called a family member to see them when I was visiting near where they lived. When one of the family members picked up the phone they told me I wasn’t welcome. The shame burned through my body. I felt sick to my stomach. I have no recollection of what I did or said next. I don’t even remember now how I found out why they were so upset with me. I do know that I acquiesced without a word of protest.
I did eventually learn their upset was based on a misunderstanding. They thought I had lied to them. I had visited their family when they were on holiday earlier in the year. When I arrived I realized it had been a polite invitation to spend time with them. I felt like I was imposing on their family vacation. Out of my fear of conflict, I acted as if everything was fine and spent as little time with them as possible. I’m sure this came across as rude and ungrateful.
I ended up meeting someone while I was visiting and having a holiday romance. When I left it was apparent they were happy to see the back end of me, but to my dismay when I got to the train station I had misunderstood the kind of ticket I had and even though there was a train leaving for my destination, my ticket didn’t qualify for the train. I was in Spain and didn’t speak Spanish at the time, but I found out that I needed to come back the next day. So I took a taxi back to my family. In my experience, they were disappointed that they hadn’t actually seen the back end of me. But fortunately, it was just one more day.
I went to the train station the next day relieved to leave, but to my chagrin, it was the same situation. I wasn’t allowed on that train either. I could not face going back to my relatives again. So this time I called my holiday beau and told him the situation. He spoke Spanish and was kind enough to meet me at the train station and get everything straightened out. When I told him I could not face going back to my family he found a women’s pension for me to stay at overnight. He might have even paid for it, and then he told me he would meet me the next day and take me to the train to make sure I left safely.
When he picked me up the next day, we had a final romantic lunch together before he took me to the train and I made my way back from the South of Spain to the South of France where I was studying for my gap year. That time I was allowed on the train and made it back safely to Aix-en-Provence where I resumed my French studies. But unbeknownst to me, friends of my family saw me having lunch with my beau and told them. That is why I was not welcome in their home. They thought I lied to them about leaving so I could spend time with Tony. And this compounded me not being a good guest because I avoided them during the time I was supposed to be staying with them.
But I was told I wasn’t welcome in their home, I had no access to my rational mind. It didn’t occur for me to ask them why. I was in a freeze response. And without that information, I couldn’t clarify the misunderstanding and apologize for avoiding them when I was visiting. Instead, I shut down and felt engulfed by my shame. Even though I didn’t even know what I was meant to be ashamed of, I didn’t question it. I felt true, therefore, I trusted it.
I was being rejected and it was just further proof that fit with my unloveable narrative that I had pieced together in my mind based on the evidence of my father disappearing from my life with no explanation as a child. It would be another six years before I got the courage up to ask for more details about my father, and I did eventually risk reopening communication with my estanged family in my thirties.
My freeze response was misunderstood by me to mean I was a coward. There must be something fundamentally wrong with me that I was too afraid to speak up, too afraid to ask questions, too afraid to share my side.
I didn’t know at the time how that response is a healthy part of the human design for survival and not voluntary. I learned to survive and keep myself safe by being non-confrontational and not asking questions that seemed dangerous to me.
It is hard for me to feel compassion for the level of sensitivity that I still feel in this area.
There is no shame in the freeze response. It is easy to judge it as a weakness, but it is not a choice. The nervous system shuts down for protection. The cognitive brain goes offline and the fawn response kicks in for safety. The fawn response is a trauma response that is not within conscious control. The “fawning” is trying to appease someone in order to stop or minimize the painful behavior. It can be unlearned as the nervous system settles and finds a new level of equilibrium so that it doesn’t shut down so easily, but when it does happen it is not a reflection of character or weakness. It is an involuntary response designed for survival.
This article was published previously on www.therewilders.org. Go to the free resources to see more of Rohini’s articles.
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In the first season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couple’s intensive retreat programs that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilding Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.