Shame is a powerful emotion used worldwide as a tool for inculcating socially acceptable behaviour. While guilt is described as ‘a fear of being judged by ourselves’, shame is ‘the fear of being judged by others’.
While the centuries old debate about mind vs the brain, and whether consciousness exists without the brain continues, neuroscientific researchers do have evidence highlighting the ways our thoughts and emotions correlate with certain patterns in brain activity. This research is suggestive that shame is an unpleasant emotion produced as a survival mechanism by the part of the brain designed to keep us safe from threats, the amygdala. Shame is functional as it guides our behaviour so that we remain connected to and a part of our community. However, shame can also become exaggerated as our amygdala hijacks our reasoning capacities to the point of shrouding other emotions and thoughts that are driving our behaviour.
I spoke with Professor V.S. Ramachandran, one of the worlds most influential scientists, often called the “Marco Polo” of neuroscience, and several other world leaders in Neuroscience at a Mind and its Potential conference. They shared the research enhancing our view of the causes, repercussions and management of emotions like shame.
Shame shows up in a variety of ways – defensiveness, aggression, self delusion, withdrawal, helplessness and many more. Most people can speak with self-respect and pride about challenges like the annoying co-worker, the flu we have, our career goals and sporting ambitions. But, there are other challenges that remain private, shrouded in shame (fear of judgment by others) making them not so easy to speak about with self-respect. These can include our deepest fears, hurts, longings, addictions, obsessions and secret hopes. When the sense of shame is strong in protecting our sense of integrity from judgment and attack, we don’t always recognize it as shame.
Additionally, even when we do recognize an emotion akin to shame, we can’t always see through the shame to find out what else is going on. Both of these processes prevent us from seeing and naming our experience clearly and consequently knowing what wise action might be. We often believe what our minds are saying to us as we defend, blame, avoid, remain unaware and sometimes invite others to support our views. Both the council of wise loved ones and therapists can then be limited by the presence of unrecognized shame shrouding what is going on.
Neuroscience meets mindfulness practice as research is showing that self-regulation of emotion occurs when we can accurately label the emotion. In naming the emotion we connect parts of the limbic brain to parts of the pre frontal cortex and over ride the reactive survival mechanism of the amygdala. Our reasoning connects to our emotions and disconnects from the automatic threat response of the amygdala. Some of these enhanced survival patterns – learned positive behaviours – are rewarded with pleasure. This can be done consciously and deliberately.
Mindfulness practice teaches us to do this by simply observing all emotions, thoughts and body sensations with curiosity and acceptance as mental events, nothing more, nothing less. As we increase our comfort with whatever arises, we create the safety that prevents the amygdala from kicking in and hijacking our minds, and instead we develop enhanced survival patterns. We learn to sit with shame long enough to explore it, and whatever other thoughts, emotions and memories are connected to it. Over time we see the familiar patterns. In the absence of self-judgment we are no longer bound by the shame that either stops us even seeing or has us scurrying to denial or self torture when we do see.
Where we spend our time emotionally determines our life. If we spend our time emotionally living shrouded by shame, then shame is the emotion that determines the quality of our life.
Neuroscience is expanding our understanding of why an ancient contemplative practice like mindfulness is so powerful in nurturing emotional intelligence and a positive mindset, while simultaneously nourishing the heart of compassion, a sense of calm, and optimising our mental powers.