Mireille and Adam discuss shame as an emotional and experiential construct. We dive into the neural structures involved in processing this emotion as well as the factors and implications of our experience of shame. Shame is a natural response to the threat of vulnerability and perception of oneself as defective or inherently “not enough.”
What is shame?
Brené Brown, leading researcher on shame, vulnerability and connection — ”Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”
The “hustle” of not enough
Shame is the response to threat. It is a stress response. Think of Shame as the inner critic. The one who berates and belittles you out of this place of fear of inadequacy or inherent flaw.
Shame vs. guilt
- Shame = I AM bad/marred/irreparably flawed.
- Guilt = I DID something bad.
Guilt is rooted in a behavior you did whereas shame is all encompassing, fundamentally who you are as defective or inadequate.
Shame prompts hiding. Because when we feel ashamed, we don’t want to expose ourselves to others. If we “feel” or believe ourselves to be marred, it makes sense that we would be apt to hide.
From an evolutionary perspective - Shame is a signal that you aren’t part of the tribe, which would’ve been threatening or dangerous.
Is the culture of today conditioning us to feel dis-content more often?
“I stopped trying to keep up with the Jones’ because I realized that when I wake up someone moved the line.”
Examine what you are optimizing for as opposed to applying the “one-size-fits-all” approach.
How do I manage shame more adaptively?
- Identify the emotion. What is the perceived threat that I’m reacting to?
- Identify your tribe. Who can I connect with? Who’s part of my tribe?
- What is my system for soothing? I need to upload new soothing/calming data.
It all comes back to being grounded in knowing what you’re optimizing for and recognizing that being who we are — being human, always involves vulnerability so we have to practice showing up.
Click here to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
I just think how parenting some years ago used to be very rooted in shame, and how often parents would say, "Shame on you, you know better. You know better than that! How dare you?" Let me translate, "What the heck is wrong with you that you would do that?!"
Oh, man. That's hurtful right there. Well, I think that that's a deep response from a parent, because that's layered in their own issues, as well as the child's performance, and their expectation of that child's performance and potentially even how many times that child may have done that thing correctly and then now they're doing it incorrectly, for whatever reason. Gosh, my kids… Kids are so complex. But yes, shame – and it sticks with you, too. I'm 40 years old now and I have started to do a lot of introspectiveness the last several years; it's a thing that you do with that. Maybe you can even verify this with the brain - at a certain point in your life, you begin to become introspective about who you are and why you are. I think it's around this timeframe.
Well, ideally you do.
Yeah, so you reflect back.
Well, I start to think what happened earlier in my life that I am now a certain way because of those things. It may be shameful things where a parent is projecting onto you, "You should have done– you knew better than this. How dare you? Shame on you for doing these things." And I wonder how many things that we have wrong today in our lives are conditioned, or bad habits, or responses that are emotional trauma deep within that. We can either blame the age ego thing or not, but I don't know, you tell me.
So Erik Erikson came up with these theories of development and that there are different stages we go through, and this middle-age season is going, "Let me look back on my life. Am I doing something meaningful? Do I like what I've cultivated?" This is why people change jobs a lot around this time, because they're like, "Wow, that doesn't fit in the same way" or "It doesn't hold the same meaning for me that once upon a time did."
True that. That's for sure.
There's lots of stuff that you're like, "That meant a lot to me ten years ago. Today, not so much." I didn't really consider this until just now, literally just now, but I feel like - and hopefully, I have a little bit more time than this, but I feel like right now, to use a football term, I'm at the 50-yard line of life. 80 years old is a pretty good age to live to. I might go past that, but a common age is 70 to 80, depending upon your health and how you're taking care of yourself. Now is the time to change if I'm in a bad direction health-wise, to begin or redirect a trajectory of good health to get to that mile marker. But it's like a milestone year for me. Many people celebrate their 40th birthday because it's this 50-mile marker or 50-yard line or whatever it might be. It's like a halfway point.
[04:12] Yeah. Well, I think it makes you look back and then reallocate what direction you want to head as based on that. Do you like what you've cultivated in the first 40, in the first half? Do you want more of that, or do you want to redefine what that looks like?
Yeah, that's good stuff there. So when we start to dig into this aspect of shame, it's different than guilt. But let's break down this concept of shame and what it really is.
Shame is really interesting; it's an emotion, but I would offer it's really an experience. Because shame as an emotion is so all-encompassing. For lack of a better way to say it, shame is this emotional experience of inadequacy, like nothing I do will ever be enough. Otherwise, it's the hustle of not enough. I didn't meet an expectation, I could have done more, and really this sense of inherent defect, irreparable. So not only am I not enough, but there's no way for me to span that gap to be enough.
Like you're broken. Can't be fixed. Not wanted, discarded.
Yeah. There are pictures that I have of different things over the course of my life, and I remember back when the anti-smoking campaigns were really big, there was this one that was of a woman with dark hair and the caption on it read, "What if what happened on the inside happened on the outside?" Her face was covered in tar, and her shoulders, and there was only some visible of the whites of her eyes and whatnot. That's the picture I get for shame. Because who, if they are appearing somewhat dirty, is going to come out and hang out with other people?
Yeah, like the leper or the lame. They're not of everyone else and so they should just not be a part. Because they don't look the part, they don't act the part, they are definitely, visibly have something not like everyone else.
Yeah. So it's interesting because you're getting at the way in which shame has this other relational component to it, of disconnection.
Yeah, that's true, because it even happens in children with timeout. "You have to go over there. You're not allowed in the tribe anymore temporarily." This is a child's mind thinking this, because they're not fully cooked, as you say. It's a shame that might come with it, like "You did this bad thing, you go over there." It's a shameful thing. That's why you have to use timeouts very specifically, if you use them, and with a purpose. You have to think, "What am I trying to do with this discipline."
Right. So whether the rejection is literal, it comes from someone else, or it comes from internally, you rejecting you, in this way, you're set apart in an irreparable way. So, now you're ironically more threatened.
One clinician talked about this experientially and saying, "Shame, once upon a time, was far more evolutionarily adaptive, because shame was a signal to someone when they weren't with their tribe, they were flying solo." So it was dangerous. Can you imagine being in the jungle or some remote place and it's just you?
Yeah, it's a bad place to be.
[08:03] It is. So even coming back to what we talked about at the initial episode - the fundamentals of being human, it involves we are tribal by nature.
Yeah, a social species. To not be a part of that tribe is– it's a multi-layered, but it's very hurtful. Because you want to be with your group, you want to be protected, you want to be sheltered, etc. The shame is a signal of that not being a fact anymore, or even if it's just temporary, it's gotta be gut-wrenching.
Yeah. So shame is this response to a threat. It's actually a stress response. I have an awareness that there is some threat, and now I need to react to it in some form or fashion.
A stress response.
Yeah. So it sets off this cascade of events in our brain around how do I manage a perceived threat. Remember, threats don't have to be legitimate for our brain to still run the play.
Yeah, that's the truth, too.
Right? Just because you had an interaction with somebody, it doesn't mean that they're a lion, tiger or bear, but your brain doesn't know that. Your brain is still going to run the same play of like, "Oh, my Lord, there's danger ahead. Now I need to try to figure out some way to recover… Except, uh-oh, there isn't a way to recover because I'm set apart. I'm hanging out all by myself, and I just have to live in this space of helplessness."
How closely is shame connected to this idea of imposter syndrome then? Are they one-to-one or they're just cousins or siblings?
Interesting question. I think imposter syndrome really is a consequence or a way of reframing shame, because it's rooted in this, "Not enough. I can't hold on to my awards, achievements, and efforts. I feel like no matter what initials are behind my name, what successes I've cultivated literally, legitimately, they are insufficient." I mean, I could say, "Well, I'm really not that accomplished, because there are other doctors out there who've done way more than I have, or they've specialized in X, Y or Z that I haven't. So I suck." That's what shame does.
You're a practicing clinical psychologist, right?
That's what you do daily. That means you see patients, you've done it for many years now. So what is the percentage of people who share or come into a clinical situation with you and seek advice that's rooted primarily in this shame/imposter syndrome?
Yeah. Well, a lot. I can't say percentage-wise, because in some way, at some point, it always gets tethered in. I mean, I can talk more specifically…
It's a by-product.
Yeah, yeah. One of the interesting things with shame is that shame prompts this hiding response. We'll talk about this in a little bit. But if I'm thinking of shame as a response to a threat, generally speaking, that means I'm going to be activated for fight, flight or freeze. So shame is going to prompt hiding, and if we feel like an imposter, what are we doing?
Yeah, yeah. There's a way that if we're not connected and nobody really knows us, I can continue to feel as though people don't really know me, and like if they really saw me, if I was really visible, what was going on inside, like "Oh, my word, if my thoughts were made public…"
What you made me think of there when you described this was this aspect of hiding; I'm wondering if, as part of this, we could talk about telltale signs that you're in these moments. Because sometimes it's very top-of-mind awareness that you are very mindful of your shame or of your imposter syndrome, and some may be just in that lull, in these ways of not really thinking they're in a shameful situation; they are hiding.
[12:18] So I'm just wondering if there are telltale signs that say you are in shame or you are in an imposter syndrome posture, and then potentially even ways to get out of or to remedy the shame?
Well, so I'm super thankful for researchers who've looked at this more in-depth. If you haven't heard of her, go look her up, but Brené Brown - she was out of the University of Houston, and a social worker who did tons of research as it relates to shame, vulnerability, and connection.
When we look at the research, there are two variants that people run and one is what we call quantitative research, so I can measure it; I'm looking at specific numbers and I assign a value to different constructs. Then I measure that within or in different groups. Then there's what we call qualitative research. So qualitative isn't necessarily, "I'm measuring a specific, I am giving a specific amount or value to something, but rather…" In Brené's work, she did this with interviews.
So she looked at this aspect of vulnerability and asked the same questions to hundreds of people over and over again, and then went through all of these along with other researchers to extrapolate what are the common themes that are talked about when it comes to shame. What she found was this sense of "We all face this, because vulnerability is a part of shame." That makes sense, right? If I'm talking about shame as a response to a threat, then if I am aware of my vulnerability, it's easy for me to be activated and then respond with fight, flight or freeze.
So she talks about shame as a storm. She says you have to be able to name it. That's one of the key things, is recognizing shame. Cognitively, it's this inner loop. So put a song on repeat over and over and over again. It might feel like this sense of anger, or I refer to it as the inner critic. That's the internal dialogue you hear of, "What's wrong with you? How stupid could you be? I mean, my goodness!" So it perpetuates this notion of not enough. The other feeling that might come with it is helpless. I'm damned if I do, I'm damned if I don't. Smart people, just lay down and try not to move.
So why show up? Why try?
Yeah, right. So now imagine that literally I'm spiraling down more into my brainstem, so I actually lose more of the cognitive function of my neocortex… To be able to think like a human, I end up thinking much more like a lizard, as we've talked about reptiles or mammals. I'm caught in this emotional storm and I feel I can't get out.
That's a tough place to be in, too. The name it to tame it seems to keep coming up every time we have some sort of conversation. I feel naming something and giving some definition to this thing that we keep feeling, and naming things seems to be key because it gives you an understanding of it. Once you have an understanding of it… Awareness - we've said this before that this is really a key aspect to any remedy, is awareness of and defining what it is.
[16:02] Right. So one of my favorite examples of this - Brené Brown talks about this, I forget where… She's written a number of books; she's got her TED talks, and more. But she describes this scenario, the pickup line at school– and so especially if you're a mom and have ever hung out in the pickup line, it's an experience.
Or dad. I've done it too.
You just shamed me. I'm just kidding; just being funny.
She tells the story of another woman coming to her and asking her where she had been. She had, at that time, been away for a speaking engagement of this, that or the other, and she didn't share this with the other woman. She just said, "I was away" and, Brené Brown was living in Texas at this time, so I have to give other relevant contextual factors… But this other mom said, "Well, who watched your kids while you are away?" And she's like, "Well, their dad did, and then grandparents helped" and stuff like that. The woman's response to her was, "Oh, bless your heart." If you live in the South, "bless your heart" doesn't really mean bless your heart. It's this way of like, "Oh, goodness… Good try, but not enough. You totally sucked. You failed." So Brené Brown in feeling this was literally spinning, of going "What mom are you to leave your kids? And how dare you leave your kids with their dad for a week?" So the reaction is to fight, flight or freeze. So she could stand up or she could hide out, or she could just freeze. So her mantra to this is, "Don't puff up, don't shrink down. Just stand on your sacred ground." So don't fight back, don't retreat in hiding and don't freeze, but stand in what's true for you.
So in this instance, I just find it so humorous, but she ended up– she said to the woman, "Good to see you," rolls up the window and she's like, "The line's moving." The line was not moving, but she moved maybe six inches forward. But she was trying so hard to hold on to emotion, this huge, big emotion. So she says, "Shame is the most powerful master emotion. It is the fear that we're not good enough."
Wow. This idea of standing on your sacred ground is interesting, because it reminds me of this idea that we've talked about as well, of like "What are you optimizing for?" We talked about it in goal setting. So Brené going out on her mission, in her career, leaving her children with a capable father is not a bad thing, and she's optimizing for the career she's trying to build it while cultivating a great family life… And it's this idea of being grounded in knowing what we're optimizing for. I feel like if we are able to be more aware of what we're optimizing for, it's easier for us to be less shamed. I'm sure it's going to happen, but when it comes around, we understand what ground to stand on.
Yeah, I once heard it said with a speaker and I thought it just resonated with me at that time… They said, "A long time ago, I stopped trying to keep up with the Joneses, because I realized every night when I went to bed, when I woke up the next day, someone moved the line."
Oh, yeah. Every day, it moves. Especially in this tech world that we camp out at. I know our audience has transcended the typical Changelog - and I don't mean that in a negative way. But we have cultivated a network of podcasts that focus on software developers, but this show is transcending that. But every day in the tech world, the line has moved. No single day does technology not progress. That's the name of the game. It's meant to be progressive. Every day the line moves. So every day, people in software, whether you're a software developer, quality assurance, a marketing manager, a product manager, a product development manager, engineering manager, whatever, everyone's getting their line moved every single day.
[20:24] Yes. So it is exhausting. I mean, this is really the epitome of that hustle. So when information is moving at that speed, it literally is like a gerbil on a wheel - wake up and run it, run it, run it, run it, run it… And that's not how we're designed. We're not designed in the same way, and there aren't two the same. So why would I say that somebody else needs to do what I do because I do that, or that then I need to do what someone else does because they do that? If we're looking at the world in terms of a harmony of working together, because we're a social species, ideally, in a tribe, I don't want everybody to have the same skill. That's gonna put us at risk, too. I mean, I want people to reflect on what aligns with them. Do they want to be doing that work?
Some of these things I say would be phasic, in sort of life stages, and going, "Maybe in one life stage I'm optimizing for one thing. I'm really trying to get this degree so that I can have this other career. Or I'm really trying to be at home with my kids these five years, 12 years, 18 years, whatever it might be", because that's what really fits with the internal compass for you.
Yeah. At what point does the concept of contentment come in? So if we're not enough, and we're telling ourselves or the world's telling ourselves that we're not enough… And this aspect of keeping up with the Joneses is a well-known euphemism for just not keeping up, not enough… Contentment seems like the silver bullet to solving this problem. Like, "Just be content!" Is that also shameful to say, "Just be content with what you have; you have so much. You're so blessed. You're so well taken care of; you're so well off," whatever the phrase might be.
I have to laugh, because part of me thinks that what you're saying is, "Shame on you for not being content enough." [laughs]
Right, exactly. And you won't even tell yourself that.
Right?! "What's wrong with you that you want more? Come on, just get with it!"
It also reminds me of this layered cake. I asked you before about something and it was like, "It's not just that. It's this and this other thing, too." It's shame, imposter syndrome, contentment, keeping up with the Joneses, not being part of the tribe, being ostracized… These are all systematic, multi-layered variations of interpersonal relationships, and shame being this key factor to say, "You're not in a place where you should be. You're being ostracized", and now you're in defensive mode and all that. But then contentment is – where does it fit in?
So I would offer a different word. It's not optimizing or looking for contentment, but rather honesty. Can you look in the mirror and recognize what fits for you? We've talked about that superpower of choice - what am I choosing? Is it important to me? Because look, we can't have our cake and eat it, too. We all have to make choices and there's a domino effect of ramifications from those choices. That's not good or bad, right or wrong. Those just are sequelae. So in light of that, would I want something different? Or does it resonate with me? Is this being honest? This is why talking about vulnerability - to some degree, it's vulnerable to show up.
[24:19] I have talked about this or used this parallel in other episodes, but thinking about kids doing art projects. So here's a template, and this is what you're supposed to create. Who in the class creates the same one?
Never. It's never the same. They're always unique. They're always different. Some are bad, some are good. Some are very close to the example given.
Right. So this sense of honesty is really like, I'm going to stand in the mirror and look at myself and say, "This is who I am. Look, you're an 'n' of one." In research, we use 'n' meaning the number of subjects. There's no other Adam. There's no other Mireille. There's no other Katie, Joe, Susie, Marlene, you name it. Even if people have the same names, you're the only one. So I want to cultivate this sense of respect and honesty and authenticity to practice showing up.
This seems to all route back to identity though. So if I look in the mirror and I don't know who I am, how can my reasoning for this honesty come to a conclusion that reflects who I am if I don't know who I am? So is a practice part of this to have an understanding of your identity - who are you? So if you know who you are, you know what you should do.
Yeah. But think about it like clothes that fit. Clothes are something you wear, they're something you put on, it's an external construct designed to fit. Think about the difference between something you buy at a general store versus something that's tailor-made. If it's tailored to you, how does it fit?
Yeah, far better. So you do have to have some sense, but it's really this matching up. Think of the little kids match game… What's on the inside and what's on the outside go together. So if I'm saying that what somebody else is optimizing for, or because somebody has done more or different than I, then that needs to fit me is really– I mean, I'm the first to be mean to myself.
Absolutely. I'm my worst critic, and I'm terrible to myself sometimes. I've heard you speak of this concept, inner referee. Can you talk about that?
My referee sucks, by the way… [laughter] I'm just doing it live, y'all. I'm just shaming myself live.
[laughs] This inner referee - there are different ways to talk about this, but recognizing we all have this little kid inside of us; think about what you would do impulsively, reflexively, without thinking. This is just me being me. Kids do it. They're not censoring, or just much of the time, living life.
Yeah, they sure are. They're never filtered.
Right. But you can think of them, this other side of you, your inner critic or bully, that is sort of your self-regulatory aspect that says, "Oh, no. You don't do that in this public place, because that is out of bounds." So that part of you is trying to keep you in check all the time. So maybe a parent voice that comes out more critical…
But then this third aspect is this inner referee that's like, "Timeout, you two. You don't have to vilify one another. You get to be a kid and you get to be an adult", but how can we negotiate? And the referee's like, "Hey, critic, totally out of bounds. I call foul." You don't get to talk to yourself in that way. That's really belittling, demeaning, unkind, not compassionate. And like, "Hey, little kid, you don't just get to have the cake and eat it too all the time. That doesn't work well." So how can these aspects of me hang out with me inside me?
[28:22] That's a difficult thing. You have to live with yourself. You said it before, you're the one who has to live with your own brain. Your own choices.
Yeah. Well, so the interesting caveat, as we talk about shame is the way in which it does have ramifications with other people. Because if I'm feeling so marred, so insufficient – I mean, maybe a visualization of this might be like a homeless person trying to walk into a five-star restaurant. They would never feel accepted, like they belonged to that community, so they're probably not apt to try. Even though they need food, that's not where they're going to go.
So we have to recognize one of the remedies for managing or navigating shame looks like connection. Because while you still feel like hiding, if you want to come back – and this is a testament to Brené Brown's work and research that says, "The remedy for shame is connection." Really finding compassion in another person and like, "I see you, and that's okay. You're doing great. You don't need to do different or better or more."
It also gives you feedback. The self-regulating referee inside of us - that's a feedback loop as well, but sometimes isn't as kind or compassionate as we would desire. But the feedback loop of our tribe, our people connection is enough to remind us that our crazy isn't as crazy as we think it is. Our imposter syndrome isn't true, and they remind us that these truths you're thinking are true, are actually false.
Yeah, and really with that, that that isn't an accurate image. Even though your feeling side is going to say, "Yeah, that's real, and now you need to try to duck and cover and hide" when you're in the presence of another – this is why sometimes people even talk about confession, why confession is so powerful… Because you stop hiding. Think of the Wizard of Oz. Here is this big, booming voice, but behind it is just this itty bitty man.
Yeah, behind the curtain. Yeah, I mean, if you have nothing to hide from anymore, you don't have anything to hide from anyone else… It's freeing. It's so freeing to not have secrets. There are things that are private and there are things that are secrets. The secrets are the things that are generally shameful, and private things are just things that only I or my immediate family or people that are within a certain circle of trust, can have access to. It's not so much that it's a secret. There's a difference there.
Correct. Yeah, exactly. The interesting thing is recognizing when you do feel that way, you're actually participating in your experience of disconnection. Because when I hide, I think that I'm too marred to be accepted, so I don't share. So I am disconnected, and then I don't feel connected. So recognizing – and it doesn't mean it's just anyone and everyone like the guy sitting next to you on the bus, or the ferry, or on the airplane, that you share it. But where is a relationship, who is a person that you have built a relationship that you can say, "Hey, this is where I am; here's the struggle that I'm trying to navigate" or "Here's where I feel like I really mucked it up"?
[32:05] You guys work on teams a lot in the tech industry, right? So if you're like, "Dude, I wrote this code. I did this program. I was trying to work on this thing. I just can't figure it out, or I just didn't show up, because I didn't want to be vulnerable to the criticism, condemnation or judgment of my team, that's like, "You didn't do it good enough."
Yeah… Sometimes those walls are self-built. Sometimes they're also part of the culture. This may be a subject matter for another show, but specifically with teams, there's often perceived walls built, whether it's me building them, of like "I can't show up today because I'm embarrassed that I didn't kill it this last day or two. Or I didn't deliver on my KPIs" or whatever it might have been. These constructs we put in our path that essentially give us those feelings. And to be able to be vulnerable with a teammate and say, "Here's where I'm struggling", that's the culture that I would like to cultivate. One where you can say, "You know what, I'm not showing up in these ways for these reasons. Can you help me?" Or just not even needing the help, because that's sometimes hard to ask for, but this vulnerability of saying, "This is true for me today" and just be aware of it, that I'm in this moment. And they may offer, "Oh, let me help you get through this." Or even just hearing you, just sometimes putting something out loud makes you participate in a choice of vulnerability rather than hiding in the syndrome that just encompasses us.
Yeah. Well, you think about it, you hear that voice and it's– I mean, think of the way that you read a text or an email, versus you hear the live response of another.
Often way different.
Yes. We hear it in a certain tone of voice or tenor that affects then how we feel, and may prompt further hiding. Or like, "Oh goodness, I really need to clarify this and come out of hiding." Or like, "I want to fight back."
I heard Jerod say recently on a podcast we did with Jeff Meyerson on Software Engineering Daily… Jerod is aware of this. So he knows that in text, so like in Slack, he's often just a brief person. He's aware that sometimes that can come off incorrectly. Just saying a one-word response answer sometimes might be like, "What? Really? Why'd you say it like that?" And all they were just being brief, because they were being efficient. And that's Jerod. So it was just funny how he had said it on this show… It was like, he's aware that this brief nature of our communication patterns can sometimes be mistaken as exactly what it's not, which is, "I didn't mean it the way you took it. If you'd heard my true vocal tone, it wouldn't have sounded like that at all."
"Oh, wait. You mean, you weren't actually threatening me when you said that?"
That's right. Exactly.
"Oh… Because my brain told me that you were threatening me."
"And so now I'm gonna respond in a hostile manner. Then I'll show you who's bigger!"
That's right. Or I'll hide. Or I'll go to my place. I'll go to my place. Okay, I'm in my corner. Thank you.
[laughs] Yeah, yeah. So I want our listeners to get at this too from the brain perspective, and recognizing the set of underlying neuroscience of it. So first off, if you've heard of the ANS, so the autonomic nervous system… This is the part of our body that regulates our internal organs without the need to think about it. So there are two branches, so think Wishbone now… They are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
[36:03] So the sympathetic (think sympathy) the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for connecting the different organs of our bodies to our brain via our spinal cord. So when we perceive danger, our sympathetic (sympathizes) system causes us to prepare for fight, flight or freeze by increasing our heart rate, as well as blood flow to our muscles. Because if I need to fight or flight, I don't need it up in my brain. I need it in my legs, my arms. I need serious blood flow. And then it decreases blood flow to organs such as the skin.
Where it's not needed.
Yeah, yeah. The sympathetic nervous system is excitatory. Hence anxiety. Like, "I need to rev up. I need to get going." So the parasympathetic nervous system is comprised of nerve fibers and cranial nerves. I don't want everybody to get lost in all these things, so I'm just going to move on to the primary part of this parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve, and the lumbar spinal nerves. So these two important structures increase our digestive secretions and reduce the heartbeat. So it's just the flip flop, the opposite; that's parasympathetic, so think paralyze. Sympathetic sympathizes, parasympathetic is like, "No, I'm going to still it, or decrease things." So when faced with shame, the brain reacts as if it were facing physical danger, and activates the sympathetic nervous system, generating fight, flight or freeze. Hence brainstem, like "I'm figuring things out. I'm just going to live like a lizard or a reptile…"
Yeah. So I'm not thinking with the other aspects of my human brain, which allows more structures, more participation from more aspects of my brain to collaborate, to tell me any other information, to say like, "This isn't dangerous. He's not a bear."
Right. And I think that's because the– and correct me if I'm wrong here, but I would assume it's because we have limited awareness. So when we're in a fight, flight or freeze response scenario, we have to activate the things that are most crucial in those kinds of modes, and a fully functioning rational brain may not be enough awareness focused brain power so that we can just run, as fast as we possibly can, away from the tiger… Yet it's not really a tiger because our rational brain would have said, "Chill out, okay? That's not a tiger. You don't need to run, and your heartbeat doesn't need to raise from 59 to 92 per minute."
Right. So our regular calm brain is able to see things that that lens of our brain sees things far more panoramic…
That's right, the panoramic view.
…the picture view, versus tunnel vision of far and narrow. Because I need to see a threat coming from far away so that I can fight, flight or freeze. It's interesting, there was a paper published back in 2014 in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience - again, say that five times fast… The researchers carried out– have you heard of functional MRIs?
I have, but I'm not familiar with the details.
So functional MRIs, they're a way that we can get a picture of the brain in terms of what parts are getting activated by different colors.
Like blood full, and stuff like that?
Yeah, yeah. So it's more of seeing how systems work and how information travels as opposed to just like a picture that's black and white, like MRI & CT. So the research team, when they did this study found out– so they wanted to see how the brain reacted to the experience of shame, so they found that there were certain structures within the brain that reacted to these shame stimuli, including the frontal lobe.
[40:04] Remember, our frontal lobe is executive function, so executive assistant planning, organizing, speed of information processing, all sorts of things. It included the frontal lobe, which contains both the amygdala and this brain structure called the insula. I-N-S-U-L-A. So this insula was once believed to be implicated in emotional responses, and part of the limbic system. The limbic system is our emotional reasoning system. I'm sorry, the insula is in the cerebral cortex, inside this little lateral groove. So you'd have to dive deep in the brain in order to get to this part of our brain.
It's like the epicenter area.
Yeah. So it's now believed to be involved in awareness or consciousness, and plays an important role in other functions; believed to be linked to emotion, including self-awareness, and inner personal experiences, like how I am with others. So the researchers have identified the insula as this hub that regulates interactions between different brain regions, that regulate the internal, so our brain's focus of our body and how we behave, or how we regulate our behavior.
So imagine this insula as like the control tower. So we get shamed, and our control tower's like, "Whoa, all hands on deck! We need to fight for our life. Fight, flight, or freeze or play dead, because there's a danger here!" So remember, when you're trying to reason out these emotions, you don't have access. So it's like trying to have a really long conversation with the lizard about what they should do and how they shouldn't care that much. It doesn't matter that they're that color right now. It won't compute. Our brains don't know what to do it.
Well, why in the world is our brain designed like that? I mean, if shame is such a commonplace emotion, why is our self-awareness and interpersonal experiences embedded in this insula, which seems to do the work at the time, but we just can't quite compute it the way it should be?
Ideally, our brains are supposed to work together. So could you imagine a life devoid of emotion?
It'd be very difficult to do that. You couldn't reason with the emotion even. It would cancel itself out even, because emotion is this self-awareness thing. And if you're not self-aware, is it real? Did it even happen?
Well, doesn't emotion also drive connection?
I can think of people that I want to move towards or I want to move away. So all of these things are intertwined, like a ball of yarn, in terms of being in relationship; I'm connected to others, I am designed to be attached, tethered to – my brain signals a danger when I'm not with a group of people or person, that I need to then react in a very survival-like way to navigate this unpleasant, overwhelming emotion. So this is why being able– going back to the name it to tame it, when you can recognize that you are in a shame storm, then you can go, "Who or what is going to help me navigate this?
Yes. So what connecting can I anchor to?
Right. So if you think about it, there's like a three-stepped process of going "Identify the threat, identify the motion", and it might not just be shame; it might be just helplessness, it might be a broader fear. It could be that inadequate, wrong… But then identify your tribe. Who can you connect with? Who's my tribe? Who might be best able to understand why? Beneath the iceberg, why what someone else might only see as the tip of the iceberg, why this thing is actually relevant to me?
[44:20] And then three, you need that raft, that soothing system. So you need to upload a new, soothing, calming system. Imagine like you update software all the time.
You need to patch that brain with a new build that works, that's optimized for this new construct. That's so interesting. And what I find super interesting is the metaphors and direct connection between the way the brain works and the way we often build software. Whether it's a database graph or the way large-scale systems are built, there's a lot of learning between how the human brain operates, and the way in which software operates, and how we build it, and the way we fix it etc. There's a lot of similarities.
Well, I'm so glad you brought that up, because we haven't talked about this as it's relevant to creativity. If you can see that when we are trying to navigate shame, this sense of inadequacy, do you think you're going to be more apt to be creative, or less apt to be creative?
I would guess less apt, because I'm trying to focus on fight, flight or freeze in those moments, and I've got no time to be creative. I've gotta be the most necessary Adam possible to get through, rather than be creative.
Yeah. So let me tell you the dynamic. Adam, I need you to be remarkably creative, so you can come up with the best, most user-friendly way for this to work. Except you suck, you didn't do it enough, and you need to do better.
Don't ever tell me that again, Mireille. That is not nice. But I can understand how in that kind of moment – so if you're leading teams out there, don't lead with shame, okay?
Well, it's really recognizing the way that you have to– if you can shift your mind into seeing this through a way of management, like I need to manage how I interface with other people, especially around creative endeavors, then I need to be deliberate about identifying what they're doing well, and even create clarity, what you want them to approve upon. If you get stuck in that hustle of not enough, welcome anxiety or depression or other mental health or stress in your life, because you're just living in fight, flight or freeze, and you're not going to have access really to do it as you are capable of doing it.
[46:59] I'm so grateful for the work that Brené Brown has done, because she's given us so much, so many words and ways of understanding this. One of the quotes she gives in her book - Daring Greatly, is I believe the one it's in - is a quote by Theodore Roosevelt. Have you heard this? The man in the arena?
So when we're talking about managing shame, really we're talking about managing vulnerability and trying to be creative, being authentically ourselves. This is what he said in one of his speeches. He said, "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again. Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming. But who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory, nor defeat."
It's about showing up. It's really just living who you are and knowing you did, what you could with what you had at the time you needed to do it. Nobody is immune to shame, but we have to look at how we can stand where we are in that sacred place.
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