I don’t really “want” to write about shame and other difficult emotions because it means having to feel into these feelings. And as many of you know, shame, in particular, can feel annihilating. But the origins of shame are sneaky and we tend to think it’s because something is wrong with US. The same is true for chronic illness. That’s why I’m sharing more of my ME/CFS story (chronic fatigue syndrome).
I’m starting to figure out, at a personal level rather than at the cognitive level as a somatic trauma therapist, that shame is something we learn. It’s something that can get triggered not because of one or two events in the past, but from long periods of exposure in our childhoods or across the generations.
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Healing through a trauma lens is helping me get a better handle on being and working with my difficult emotions, which started popping up in the past few years as my state of deep physiological freeze in my body began to thaw. My states of deep exhaustion and freeze at this biological level are much less than they used to be (see more in my ME/CFS story). As a result, these days I feel more of the overwhelming fight/flight/freeze in my emotions, which is part of what my physiological freeze state was protecting me from. It’s been uncomfortable, to say the least.
I also see it as a sign of progress.
In addition to shame, my other difficult emotions such as grief, fear, and anger have also been influenced by childhood experiences. When there is insufficient support to learn how to process, integrate and regulate difficult feelings, our bodies learn to suppress them as a way to protect us from overwhelm. Other feelings such as joy, love and connection can then get suppressed too.
Having these intense and sometimes overwhelming feelings in the past few years hasn’t been fun. But I understand it to be a way station I’m passing through as I keeping healing and working to recover as fully as I can. Learning how to process, integrate and honor my feelings as an adult is how I am reclaiming my disconnected parts and how my body is healing. And it’s helping me start feeling more connected, connection and love – for myself and for others.
I continue this series on boundaries and effects of adverse childhood relationship experiences (ACREs) with the metaphor of my little white fence as my boundary. I add pictures of the garden these boundaries are allowing me and David to plant.
The Tip of the Volcano
Two years ago I set a boundary with my father. I explained it was effortful to do all the listening in our one-way conversations and that it also made me feel unseen. If these conversations couldn’t include me, I was going to shift to a more superficial relationship with him that took less work on my part. To my surprise, my food intolerances of 10 years started improving within a few days.
Last fall my parents called to wish me a happy birthday. When it was my father’s turn he talked for 30 minutes without inquiring about me.
At first glance, this seems like a pretty small event to elicit the kind of anger I experienced, which I sat with, mulled over and reflected on for a few weeks.
At first blush a strong anger response seems an “overly sensitive” reaction to have for something so minor. My internal critic, and our culture at large, might ask, “Am I not able to accept little imperfections in my parents? Can’t I appreciate all the good things they continue to offer me and the fact that I am lucky to still have parents at all, especially ones who care enough about me to call? Why don’t you just interrupt? Am I just a selfish, ungrateful adult-child who is too focused on myself to control my overreactions and who needs to grow up already? Shouldn’t I just take responsibility and stop playing the victim or looking for attention?”
What we commonly fail to recognize in situations like this one, however, is that feelings of anger do not actually “come out of nowhere.” They are not personality flaws or character defects or the purview of the weak. Neither, for that matter, is “doing all the talking”.
Anger is a natural, self-protective mechanism that occurs when we feel threatened in some way, such as when our boundaries or needs are being pushed aside or overlooked. It is also a state with Energy. When getting mad happens after seemingly inconsequential events, it is often a trauma response. An intelligent process in our bodies seeking to protect us and inviting us to take some kind of action.
I also know something from the other side of the equation because I too, fall into “doing all the talking.” Working with this pattern I’ve learned, in hopes of changing it, has been unexpectedly difficult, taken a lot of time, and has required support through relationships such as in trauma therapy and with David. I still do it on occasion, especially when my social nervous system / ventral vagal connection is absent or lessened and as a result I am less able to attune and pick up cues in others. It happens, in other words, when I’m disconnected or in some version of relative freeze. This, too, is a trauma response.
Both of these states – my anger and when I “do all the talking” – represent survival responses. Both represent tips of a volcano peaking above a waterline that masks a dark, solid, rumbling mass that has been growing for decades or generations beneath the surface, out of sight.
These kinds of reactions look like “overreactions” that come out of the blue – until you start to see the big picture through the trauma lens.
What Lies Beneath Strong Emotional Responses
Strong reactions that get triggered today derive from overwhelming experiences from yesterday.
This is something somatic trauma therapists understand and look for.
We also know that the bigger the present-day reaction, the greater the likelihood the past event was not a single exposure but one that happened through much or most of childhood. We know this as complex PTSD, attachment wounding, developmental trauma or what I refer to as adverse childhood RELATIONSHIP experiences (ACREs).
If you then look for context to the situation, it shows you that it is not a single incident or person that is responsible for the symptom, flare or emotional reaction. This understanding then provides opportunities for healing that also begin to remove blame, shame, and judgment.
The experience of supporting my parents emotionally by listening to them and their concerns throughout my childhood and since (when it is supposed to be the other way around) suggests my physiology is quite skillful at repressing my impulses, needs, longings for connection, and ability to feel my own feelings.
Being a “good girl” suggests that the way I might have gotten connection as a child was by suppressing difficult feelings that could not be tolerated in my family system (due to unresolved parental trauma in that system).
The knowledge I have been disabled by a chronic illness whose predominant physiology reflects a state of hibernation suggests there were no other options for connection as a child, whether that was trying to talk about it so it could get addressed and resolved, getting angry as an attempt to make things change, or trying to get away, which is not a realistic option for a child because they are dependent on their adult caregivers for survival.
Experiences that create a physiological, last-ditch-effort, default survival response of last resort known as freeze are not just the “big things.” They can be little things that look normal but that in actuality have been overwhelming for that person.
In trauma research, freeze is a well-known state that is understood to be a normal, natural biological response to overwhelming circumstances when no other options work. It’s not psychological, it’s a nervous system response to persistent experiences of unresolvable threat or insufficient support to overcome those threats.
When holding this very large context to recognize that a person with symptoms of freeze is beginning to have core feelings – such as grief, joy, or anger – a trauma therapist sees how this may be a Very Good Sign.
They recognize that having feelings of the FIGHT / anger response means that the lava is beginning to flow and that the body’s innate capacity for thawing out of freeze is peaking out to see if it might be possible, this time, to overcome or integrate what has been impossible in the past. It is a state looking to reclaim its rightful access to Energy, which gets suppressed in states of freeze.
Symptoms: The Volcano Below the Surface
The kinds of seemingly tiny, insignificant incidents that I reacted to with anger are similar to events that stimulate symptoms for those of us with chronic illness throughout the day, most every day.
These are triggers.
The more we understand our triggers, the more we start to see how our symptoms – new ones, old ones, sudden ones, scary ones, seemingly unpredictable ones, mysterious ones our doctors don’t know what to make of or do with, etc – do not happen “out of left field.” They are the result of ongoing instructions from a nervous system caught in perceiving threat from certain events and experiences that are reminders of events going back years, decades and generations.
We are starting to understand what overt trauma can look like. The covert, however, remains deeply hidden.
As I move more actively into claiming the fullness of who I am and stepping into my purpose, I want to help make the invisible more recognizable.
Revealing more details of my ME/CFS story evokes some anxiety and guilt as well as belly bloating (freeze). Freeze also shows up through intermittent dips in energy levels. Some of my walks this week have been normal and I was easily able to do my larger 45 minute loops. But some days I’ve only had energy for the medium 30 minute route and on others I’ve only gone for a single 20 minute outing. These flares are common responses in chronic illness when facing real or perceived threat.
I am not facing real threat. That tells me these flares come from taking
action that my nervous system perceives will put me at risk (such as in this case by making myself and my family more visible, and risking shaming them or myself). These symptoms are indications my body is still trying to protect me using what
have historically been my most successful survival pathways: freeze and taking care to not threaten my survival through too much action.
To highlight further how ACREs influence not just an occasional experience of anger but also affect chronic illness symptoms and flares, here are a few examples.
I now recognize origins of some of my flare ups that happen when I visit my family. These symptoms reflect the body of the volcano that lies unseen until you have “more eyes” through which to see.
Some of these patterns my body reacts to are “alive” in my family system. In my family system children are a burden, children’s feelings are invalidated, and children are supposed to take care of their parents. These systemic patterns have been influenced by multigenerational traumas.
The patterns my body runs as part of a reaction to growing up in this environment include the following:
- My severe constipation gets worse when I visit family. This is a flare up driven by a physiological freeze response.
- I have had intense, unexpected feelings of terror during visits and occasionally deep longings to flee. I’ve realized this fear is what I likely stuffed (often into my gut) as a child because there was nowhere to go for the connection I unconsciously craved and needed.
- By the last few days of visits with my family I typically “don’t feel like doing anything” – contributing to a meal, setting the table, helping with the dishes… I just want to sit at my computer and scroll. This is a behavioral symptom driven by a physiological freeze response. It can include the biological freeze state of exhaustion although this has been less intense in recent years. This is partly because I make shorter visits (choice is one of the tools we gain as a result of the trauma lens).
- When I get back to my own home after a family visit I tend to be emotionally disconnected. This is another expression of the freeze response. It used to be something David had to point out to me because these are old coping mechanisms I was never aware I was “running.” It has sometimes taken me 2 weeks to come back into the present, into my body, to move through my feelings of grief or anger and back into my ability to feel love and connection to myself and for David. With awareness and work with this particular symptom of freeze, along with shorter exposures, I now tend to recover more quickly. But I still tend to go into relative disconnection at some point during my visits.
These effects of freeze in my system are not solely because of my father or even ACREs. They are, however, influenced by the ways the family system sees children, as well as by a system that operates in states of relative disconnection.
The body of the volcano represents just how extensive and embedded survival pathways can be that influence our physical, physiological, emotional, mental and behavioral health.
My reasons for sharing my ME/CFS story that includes details about my parents walks a fine line. I love my parents and recognize how much they have given me and that they love me too. I know their actions and omissions were not intentional.
Yet my ME/CFS story is also my own. And it gives me a detailed base from which to demonstrate how the dots connect. My story highlights the subtle yet pervasive extent to which ACRES impact us. It also provides an example of how healing early attachment wounds can make important contributions to our journeys of healing chronic illness.
The Impact of ACREs is Under-Recognized
ACREs are a vastly under-recognized, under-appreciated underpinning in bodies that develop chronic illness, mental health conditions and other effects of adversity. Symptoms arise in bodies that have experienced repeated patterns of misattunement without repair: for hours of every day, throughout every week, for months of every year, over 10 or 13 or 18 years and more.
Such exposures have happened during the periods in which our developing nervous systems, immune systems, respiratory and metabolic, musculoskeletal and ligamentous and other systems have been the most sensitive to input from their environments as a critical source of input on how to prepare for and orient to the worlds they are living in.
The more we can recognize that the flames lapping through the waterline come from a volcano rather than a match, the more we then recognize we are not to blame for our symptoms. That we are not doing anything “on purpose.” That it’s not conscious. That our bodies are merely showing us what has happened to us, not something we’ve done wrong.
Recognizing the role of trauma and adversity is how we learn there is a way through.
One we’ve often been searching for, through thick and thin, through office visit after specialty referral after diagnostic evaluation and beyond. Recognizing the role of adversity helps us begin to see that our bodies are our allies, determined to protect us but still caught in the past trying to first help us survive. Resolving trauma helps shift those inaccurate perceptions so the whole of who we are can come into the present.
This is how I’ve gained compassion and curiosity for myself, my body and the disabling effects of early experiences. This is a way others gain self compassion too.
Taking Action: Boundary I
When I felt the anger after my birthday call last fall, I worked with it from trauma perspectives. I felt into what my body and feelings were reacting to.
A part of me felt old grief from feeling invisible and the perception I was unloved. Shame that I must not be “doing it right” if change wasn’t happening. Unworthiness because it felt like I wasn’t worth the effort it must take to connect with me.
I worked with my anger, chewed on it, gave it space, felt and acknowledged the heat bubbling through my chest and out through my head, sometimes waking me up in the middle of the night.
I listened to what the anger was speaking to because anger is intelligent. It exists to protect and to motivate us to take action and protect ourselves. The hot core of my anger was expressing that I didn’t feel connected to, that I didn’t feel like someone of any importance.
I watched to see if these strategies for being with my feelings would be sufficient to help it move through and resolve..
The anger continued: they weren’t.
During a particularly strong bought of rage I took a long walk on a cold December night. I “cranked,” walking fast, eating up the ground and letting the energy of rage bolt through me. I let my arms move around as they wanted to, I noticed the way they rose up and pushed to set a strong boundary of “no” in front of me.
My feelings narrowed down to grief at my Dad’s inability to connect with me emotionally. My anger focused on my seeming inability to have a boundary.
As I hung out with my feelings, focused but not overwhelmed, an image popped into my head and I wondered what it would feel like if I stopped having conversations with my father on the phone. If I told him he was welcome to call me, welcome to email me, welcome to start a conversation, but that I no longer wanted to do all the listening.
My anger settled and resolved for the first time in weeks.
I wondered if feeling that impulse and allowing it to fully materialize in my imagination was enough to convey a sense of having successfully surmounted a difficult situation. If it might embed the boundary I felt and therefore convey the sense of safety to my nervous system. This is one way our nervous systems can resolve trauma indirectly, shift out of fight / flight response and release underlying states of freeze.
The anger came bounding back like Tigger, however, demanding I pay attention. I realized that I had to set a new, actual, verbal boundary in order to respect my body’s needs. In order to own my feelings and regulate my own emotions because it was something only I could do for myself.
In other words, I needed to use my social nervous system and take action. As an adult who had been healing effects of ACREs and complex PTSD for 20 years, I had access to my words and actions in a way I hadn’t as a child.
When I called and my mother was the one to answer the phone, I let her know I would be setting a boundary with my father to no longer be talking with him on the phone. I explained why so that she wouldn’t inadvertently try to get us together during calls, as she frequently does. And so there would be no secrets for any of us to hold.
I explained to her, in a direct and regulated way, that this pattern of emotional unavailability from my Dad was a contributor to my disabling chronic fatigue of the past 20 years. I felt calm and clear if a little bit anxious and shaky from the enormity of what I felt I was doing.
She heard me when I explained why I was setting a boundary.
I’m not sure the extent to which she could hear the part of how such patterns have contributed to my disabling illness.
My father wasn’t available to talk so I planned to call him in a few days.
In the days before talking with my father my mother’s emails started to shift in perspective. At first she acknowledged the boundary. Then she began to wonder, “Couldn’t you just appreciate all the good things he’s done for you in the past and accept him as he is?”
This was not an altogether unreasonable request. But it was one that allied with the spouse rather than fully hearing or seeing the daughter.
Such lack of acknowledgement and support connects to a young part of me that feels like a sentence standing around without a period to complete its sense of “I Am.”
As an adult, however, I can place that period at the end of my sentences.
My mother’s shifting response stimulated some doubt and shame that I was asking for too much, an old sense I might be “getting too big for my britches.” From a trauma perspective, however, I could see it was also an example of why I had had such strong feelings of hopelessness and despair as a child (and for a long time afterwards).
A child’s sense of Self, self worth, and value are shaped by mirroring – by being seen and accurately reflected by the adults around them.
We heal this by attuning to our own inner child or “little ones” with compassion, holding their hands, listening to their impulses, and honoring their needs.
Saying something and setting a boundary tells our nervous systems that we can protect ourselves through actions and words. Then, our nervous systems, cells, physiologies and bodies don’t have to do it for us by freezing or getting stuck in fight or flight modes.
On the morning I called to speak with my father, my mom answered the phone. In a tone that conveyed she was feeling protective of my father, she said they were about to sit down for breakfast and asked if it was going to take long.
The trauma lens helped me catch my survival-based impulse to be supportive and, instead of saying I’d call back another time, I quietly held my stance.
When I told my Dad I wasn’t going to be talking with him by phone anymore and why, he told me he was disappointed and sad to realize that he’d done all the talking again, and that he hadn’t been aware of it and didn’t seem to be able to stop it from happening. It was new and helpful for me to hear his feelings and I shared that I felt sad and disappointed too. A part of me wanted to dissolve my boundary right then, but I felt that I somehow still needed to start with it as a next step. Not for him, but for myself.
I have reinstated my boundary a few times over the past few months, such as after it got overridden when my parents both stayed on the phone for holiday wishes.
Something remains important about holding this new boundary.
I’m not convinced this is the optimal boundary nor a permanent one. I also know that I have not the desire to share much about myself anymore as a way to try to make a two-way conversation happen and that this boundary is just a next step based on trusting something within myself. My Dad recently told me that he doesn’t have the energy, at this time in his life, to want to try to work on such an old and embedded pattern. I understand this and the acknowledgement settles and calms something inside of me.
As a result of holding my boundary, something new is brewing in me. My sense of self worth is taking baby steps in a new direction.
I feel more trust in myself knowing that I can say what I want to say if the need arises.
There is a new kernel of greater respect for myself because a part of me is protecting my younger self in ways she did not experience.
I am also developing a better relationship with the difficult emotions that can arise at the drop of a hat. One of these is a capacity to start befriending the freeze-inducing, no longer “out of the blue” sense of shame.
I started writing this post because I was trying to better understand why I sometimes fall so easily into nearly crippling shame. That feeling of wanting to melt into the invisibility of death, to never again show my face or say something in any way contradictory or different from authority opinion.
My shame can get triggered after I complete an interview for a podcast, after it gets published, or from the wish I had said a particular thing more clearly, which then overshadows the things I did well. Shame can get triggered from fear that others will judge me for not being articulate enough. Or I can fall into shame when I worry I may have inadvertently led someone to think I’m saying it’s in their head.
I see now that this is just a symptom linked to past times when I wasn’t seen or heard. When my child self unconsciously believed she was failing to get emotional connection because she wasn’t doing it right or wasn’t worthy.
It also comes from shame that lived in my home where I grew up. My parents spoke in shaming ways to one another if they weren’t doing things right.
The wounds of shame and lack of connection are subtle yet pervasive. That young part of me sometimes feels like a pressure-filled balloon that’s missing its umbilical cord, floating aimlessly, unpaired as she is supposed to be, unable to chart her own course.
These kinds of feelings, sensations and beliefs are not character flaws. They stem from early relationship experiences.
It’s not only overt expressions of domestic violence that affect a child. Children also absorb and learn from other, littler things, such as conflict and lack of connection between parents and other family members. If such conflicts never seem to get repaired or resolved, children feel it and learn that such experiences cannot be overcome.
Children believe things happening around them are their fault. This is because children are designed to be Nurtured Into Being through the kind, comforting, attuning witness of parents and other primary caregivers.
Understanding and recognizing our inner children and their wounds gives us the tools to heal in the present.
The healing journey is a process of letting the lava begin to flow and thaw our states of freeze. It’s about making room for mobilization energy and for all our parts. This includes anger and standing up for ourselves when there is a need.
I didn’t set boundaries in hopes my parents would change. I made them to respect myself and my feelings and to help my body process and integrate emotions that have been overwhelming in the past. I made them in support of my healing journey.
When we honor our feelings we feel more whole and capable.
When we can set boundaries and respect our needs, we feel safer. We also gain access to our power, strength and energy.
Healing chronic illness and other effects of trauma is a process of learning what is ours that we can take ownership of and responsibility for because it’s something we can change. It’s also a process of learning what is not ours, not ours to carry, and not ours to fix or change.
Feeling safer, more accepting of ourselves also makes it easier to accept others as they are.
Healing trauma, overt and covert, old and new, is liberating. It shows us that we are not broken. We are gardeners, attending to and amending the soil, clearing obstacles to allow for more sunlight, watering, and building on the innate wisdom that lies within us so we can bloom, just as we are designed to do.
ACREs I: Introduction to Invisible ACEs
ACREs II: How I Overcame Severe Food Intolerances in 5 Days