9th April 2021

Shame keeps us safe. Shame is an evolutionary neurobiological protection mechanism. Even though shame is meant to protect us, it does not always manage and often makes us feel worse.
 
What is shame?

Shame is what makes us feel bad when we worry about how we are with people, whether we have done the right thing, said the right thing, or are the right person around other people. Shame drives us away from people, it makes us hide. This is unfortunate seeing as everyone experiences shame. Shame is something that we all have in common. Shame happens because we care about other people.
 
Shameless?
We would not want to be without shame. To be shameless would mean to lack the ability or intention for any connection with, or care for, another person.
 
Shame is isolating.
All humans have very similar struggles, but shame makes us think that we are the only one who feels inadequate, fat or unworthy. I often feel all those things. I have learnt to manage those feelings, but they are still there.
 
Shame lies.
Shame easily spreads. People who feel ashamed can easily shame others without meaning to. It might be an unwillingness to make eye contact, avoiding a social event or reticence to be friendly to someone we bump into. Although we may do this because we feel ashamed of ourselves for some reason, it is likely that the other person experiences your shame as theirs and feel bad about themselves instead. Shame spreads.
 
Shame is inevitable.
Shame is the cost of relationships. In an evolutionary sense, humans need social connections. In the past, we needed our tribe to survive. Even in modern society, a baby cannot survive alone. Fundamentally, humans need connection with others to survive. Whenever we have connection, there is the possibility of shame. Shame is inevitable. We cannot get rid of shame, instead, we can develop shame resilience. We can learn how to better manage our inner shame monsters.
 
Inner shame monsters.
We will always have inner shame monsters whispering to us. They whisper things like ‘you are not good enough’ or ‘you are fat’. Although they may never completely go away, we can learn to manage them so they don’t overtake our lives.
 
Perfectly imperfect.
We will never be perfect, and shame reminds us of this. Once we become ok with being imperfect, the shame monsters do not have so much of a hold on us.
 
We need a life purpose to escape shame.
We easily get stuck in shame. To move away from being stuck, we need a life purpose and to know our values. Once we have a desire and a plan, our need to escape shame is greater than our need to protect ourselves by hiding.
 
Shame antidotes.
Compassion and empathy are the antidotes to shame. If you can sit with someone who is feeling ashamed and not judge them, it is likely to be a very healing experience for them. Therefore it is important to work on not judging yourself. I often write about the need for self-compassion and this is another example of why it is so important. Compassion counteracts shame.
 
Shame and the body.
Shame manifests in the body. We need to tackle shame in the body before we can change the shame story in our minds. It is very difficult to talk someone out of shame, as the body needs to be in a relaxed state first. Stephen Porges calls this the green zone. Shame can’t survive in the green zone as it is the realm of compassion and empathy in the ‘adult’ or logical brain.
 
Shame is visceral.
Shame promotes survival in a social group by preventing behaviours which lead to harm or rejection from others. Shame is very primitive, linked to survival and developed before we could speak. Therefore it is felt in the body and it is so hard to describe with words. Directly talking about shame easily aggravates it, unless enough compassion and empathy is around to keep you in the green zone.
Shame traffic lights

The shame traffic light system suggests that our nervous system has three ways of being:
 
Green: Daily life mode where we feel safe. We have a steady heart rate, full ability of facial expressions, at ease with social engagements, feeling calm and able to relate to others. Our digestion functions optimally.
 
Amber: Fight or flight where we sense danger and we mobilise. We may have excess energy, feel restless and anxious. We lose full control of our facial muscles, which may feel tense, and our voice may change, we feel overwhelmed and find it difficult to focus on what other people are saying. Our digestion slows.
 
Red: We freeze and feel as if our life is in danger, we may play dead and shut down. We tend to have a slower heart rate and may feel faint. We feel the red zone in our guts, our face may feel blank, and our voice is weak. Our digestion fails and we may feel sick.
 
Feeling safe.
When we are out of the green zone, we don’t feel safe. Our unconscious mind is constantly scanning for threats in relation to other people and it only takes milliseconds to sense threat. Before we know it, we can be out of the green zone. We unconsciously change our behaviours when we feel threat, we do this to fit in. We are constantly scanning for threats about whether we feel unwanted, whether we will be abandoned, rejected or not good enough. Will we be accepted? Will we say something wrong? Will we get it right? All of this makes us feel shame and we will often have a response that will be one of three scenarios to avoid pain in the amber and red zones. None of these strategies work. They just increase shame in the end:
  1. Flight: We may run, hide and disappear. If bingeing is a way for you to escape from pain and emotions, then this could be part of your flight response. Bingeing can lead to more shame and more hiding.
  1. Freeze: People pleasing, do whatever we can to feel accepted, constant apologising and being a martyr.
  1. Fight: Get angry, usually with someone less powerful than us, or with ourselves. If binge eating feels like self-harm or self-sabotage to you, then this may be part of your fight response. Bingeing can spiral and lead to more shame.
Steps for managing shame

The first step to dealing with shame is noticing it. When we notice that we are leaving the green zone, we can get ourselves back there. Unless we are in the green zone, it is very difficult to give and receive compassion and love, and to build our shame resilience.
  1. Spot the physical signs of shame.
Physical signs of shame include feeling numb, sick or dissociated, which is feeling separate from yourself. When you feel any of these things, then it is likely that the shame monsters are waking up.
  1. Breathe.
Slow deep breaths relax your nervous system and can get you to the green zone.
  1. Be still.
Instead of freezing, fighting or running, be still. Try not to do anything until you have got out of the red or amber zone. Pause. This will allow you to gather your logical mind and soothe your nervous system. This will stop you reaching for the binge foods while in the red or amber zones.
  1. Self-soothe.
Try some different strategies to settle yourself into the green zone, so that you are ‘safe’ from freeze, fight, flight or bingeing. These strategies can help you get back to the green zone without bingeing. It is likely that you will not want to binge in the green zone and shame will feel less toxic. Here are some strategies to try, to help you settle into the green zone:
  • Write out or draw your feelings.
  • Have some time alone, if that works for you.
  • Go for a walk in nature.
  • Listen to an audiobook, to reconnect with a human voice
  • Listen to music that makes you happy and relaxed.
  • Cuddle a pet or another person.

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Disclaimer

The information in this website is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr Kirsten Keighley on behalf of Dr Kirsten Keighley Ltd. We recommend you make your own health decisions based on your own research and consultation with a qualified health professional. We recommend that you consult your and your child’s doctor and/or dietician before beginning a new diet or exercise programme.