I am thinking this morning as I wake to write at 3 am about some of the tiny interactions I noticed as I experienced them in my tiny world in this tiny place yesterday. I stopped at the hardware store to pick up some potent bug spray as the weather is warming and I don’t like to think about the nasty bugs that will appear around me soon in my house. I walked in the door and an older woman was half heartedly rearranging the short display of candy by the cash register. Now, in looking at how my “altered brain operates,” I can see the vast amount of information I can acquire in an extremely short period of time.
First of all, as she stood there supposedly working, I immediately noticed that she was really doing nothing at all, but as she pretended to arrange the candies, she also was standing so far out from the display that her body was blocking the isle way. Anybody who wanted to walk past her would have had to physically negotiate themselves awkwardly to get around her. In that way she was claiming space that was not really hers, and at the same time making herself noticeable. There was a lot of information available about this woman just from this split second encounter.
What inner need did she have to take up that space, to make herself visible, to claim space that really wasn’t hers to claim, to inconvenience others, to be noticed? Then, she nearly instantly looked in my direction but not into my eyes as she asked me, “Can I help you?” “Yes,” I responded. “I am looking for the insect spray isle.” Off she led me, saying at the same time, “It’s all back here, but I don’t know anything about it. I don’t have to worry about such things. My landlord takes care of all of that.”
Now I can’t tell you in the context of the written word what her voice inflections and body movements were communicating to me, but my assessment of her intention was to let me know that she was superior to me. Here I was having to buy my own spray, and there she was, much better off than me, not having to give any aspect of the insect problem any consideration.
All fine and good. What that woman thinks of herself and of me has nothing to do with the price of tea in China. Or does it? This was, essentially, an interaction that was pivoting around a point of negativity, not positivity. As we encounter thousands and thousands of such interactions, 99% of the time without even noticing what is going on, we are reacting to them. These are energy transactions. As adults we are not supposed to notice them. We are supposed to PRETEND, along with everybody else, that things are just fine. And if, somehow and for some reason we DO pick up on or notice the negative feelings displayed between people, we are supposed to “eat them” ourselves.
These are the packages of toxic candy we feed one another without awareness. But in looking at my altered, different brain more closely, and in understanding the power of subtle communication, I can see that at least for me, these kinds of interactions are operating almost in slow motion.
This woman has been fed toxic shame. She has not been able to metabolize it and, as with most of the rest of us, will continue to manipulate her environment so that others do the shame dance with her. She might as well have said, “Look at me! Give me attention! I have my body right here where you cannot easily get around me. I am going to inconvenience you because I am really really mad that nobody gave me what I needed when I needed it.”
In addition, she demonstrated the split of obviously working a job that she does not enjoy, is not “at place with,” because she is not “flush.” No matter what she is trying to communicate to others about being on an upper level looking down because she lives so “far up there” bug spray does not need to exist.
In these kinds of interactions we are not people to one another. We are utilizing our life’s energy to try to heal. What makes the interactions toxic and useless is the unconsciousness of the motivation and the denial, or what is more accurately called “pretend mode” primitive thinking that is the mechanism we use to try to get what we want.
I bought my bug spray and left, but the “irritated limbic structures” within me, that are hypersensitized to negative emotion, are still reverberating. I can, true, ignore this. But my point is, we are experiencing these low quality interactions all the time because we feed one another and ourselves from a plate of deep shame and do not know it. And because we live in a culture and society that supports itself financially from our plate of shame, nobody talks about this.
The main problem is that we continue to feed our children the same toxic fare, and we don’t know that either. But we can feel it. We DO feel it. It is being communicated to us through our extremely refined and sophisticated visual and auditory nerve receptors in our “highly evolved” advanced primate-human brain.
We cannot say to one another, “I am truly sorry that you have to carry the pain of feeling unloved, rejected, abandoned, unrecognized, small, unimportant, unnoticed, unvalued and wrong. When you were very little someone was not paying enough or the right kind of attention to you as you began to move out to explore the new world your tiny feet and your forming brain were ready to experience. When you came back to your mother to share your excitement and to get her approval, she was not there for you appropriately because she did not know how to be, because nobody had been there for her.”
We can philosophize all we want about the “me” generations we are creating within our American society, but I do not believe this pattern is a good or a healthy one. When we are newly toddling around our tiny worlds, the introduction into the nervous system and brain of the ability to feel shame is meant to be closely monitored by our primary caregiver and her “assistants.” We are supposed to be enlarging our capacity to negotiate in a world with more people in it than just our mother and ourselves. But none of this happens automatically.
A consideration of shame, therefore, is important enough for us to spend our time now in looking at what it is, where it comes from, and what purpose it is meant to serve. When that stage of our brain-body-nervous system and emotional constitution goes awry, we remain in a primarily narcissistic self-aggrandized yet self-loathing state that can create relational patterns that sap our life energy and abort any efforts we make during the rest of our lives to truly connect both to ourselves and to one another.
At the same time that I write this, I must also say that I don’t believe there such a thing as “toxic shame.” There is just the fact that all shame is toxic to our nervous systems if it is not immediately negotiated correctly and modulated. This process begins as we gain the ability to locomote around our tiny worlds as our mother modulates the emotional state of shame with us. From her skills in assisting us, we are supposed to internalize our own skills in modulating it. If she can’t modulate her own shame, she is not likely to be able to give us the ability to modulate ours, either.
Shame is not meant to be a place we stay in. It is not supposed to be a permanent state of being. Shame is a transitional “warning” sign that we need to slow down and pay attention. It’s like we are flying down a highway at 65 mph and suddenly a warning sign on the side of the road lets us know there is a sharp curve ahead and we better slow down.
That’s it. Put on the brakes enough that you are crusing at an appropriate speed, paying closer attention than usual to any possible obstacles in the way. These can either be physical dangers or possible points of conflict with another person. They are meant to be negotiated so that the shame transaction in our own body, nervous system and brain gets completed. In the formative stage, our mother is supposed to be the one that helps us establish healthy shame transaction patterns. Otherwise, imagine scenes like these:
We have had a long day at work but need to stop and fill our car with gas so that we don’t have tto worry about doing it on our way to work tomorrow. But at the pump we find the credit card slot is taped over and we have to go inside to deal with the transaction at the till. But there’s a long line in there! The station has lost its connection and nobody’s cards are working, so it becomes an ordeal. To our dismay we notice that confusion reigns as people left their checkbooks at home, they can’t find their cash, the till is out of change. Lines of cars are forming out on the street waiting for their turn at the pump while lines of people are forming all the way out the door of the store. There’s no room to maneuver your car out of the parking lot when you decide to leave in a fit of frustration. It’s at this point that you realize you made a decision somewhere back there that put you smack in the middle of this mess along with everybody else.
If imagining this scene doesn’t get your shame goat going, think about this one. The dirty dishes are piled up in your kitchen, but there’s no water anywhere and you just keep buying more dishes. The piles are falling out your door, but there’s nothing you see that you can do about it. One day you notice that all along the streets of your neighborhood everyone seems to be having the same problem. Pretty soon dirty dishes are blocking your driveway and all the roads and you increasingly have to park your car further from home and walk. But nobody talks about the situation. They all just smile at one another and say, “Have a nice day” or “How are you today?” Of course nobody tells the truth because nobody really sees it.
You all just adapt in crazy yet creative ways. First you tried hiding the dishes in car, then in your garage. Then you built an addition onto your house so you had more room. Then you had to move your clothes and furniture outside, but even then the amount of space the dirty dishes require means that everyone around you is doing the same thing. There’s always comfort in having company! The efficiency of using the resources of your life’s energy to deal WITH this problem at its fundamental level is never actually considered. Because everybody pretends it is not a problem, nobody thinks about it and nobody talks about it. After all, it looks to you like everyone accepts things the way they are, so you had better play along. When things reach an intolerable level, you can always move on. After all, who are you to complain? Things could always be worse. We all know that optimism is a very good quality to have!
In other words, shame transactions that are not satisfactorily completed pile up. They, by themselves, irregardless of all the rest of the various aspects of our lives that we have to contend with moment to moment, are interfering with our ability to function smoothly and effectively in our own lives, let alone in our interactions with others.
Shame represents an uncompleted self-esteem transaction between our environment and ourselves.
We have reached an obstacle or a point of confrontation that we cannot negotiate around. We are therefore left in a state of energy depletion and negativity that does not go away. And because we do not know what went wrong, we cannot adapt to avoid similar situations in the future. The effects accumulate and compound.
For every uncompleted shame transaction that we encountered from our toddlerhood forward, we suffer from a corresponding degree of lowered self-esteem. Self-esteem operates on an energy continuum from positive to negative, meaning that if these transactions are completed, they generate a movement toward the positive. If they are left uncompleted, the consequence is that our nervous system is left suspended in a state of depletion and depression – or of anti-acceleration.
Either we get a sense of being competent in the world and therefore we have confidence, or the reverse occurs. And it is very hard to move forward in life if we are stuck in reverse or can’t get the brakes to release. If things are bad enough, we get turned into mobile black holes. The word “esteem,” to me, implies that it has a position on the positive end of the spectrum. And yet if a person is deprived enough of a self-esteem toward the positive, the negative result is that there is not even a self present that can experience esteem. The self and the esteem vanish back there behind the twilight where there is nothing left but darkness. And those are the people in society that can barely function at all.
The tender used to negotiate shame transactions is always one thing: HOPE. If helplessness and powerless is the first “defense” that comes to us as humans, this is because that first, foremost and fundamentally, what we need to have past the fulfillment of our most basic physical needs is hope. And even with the fundamental needs from the beginning, it is hope that someone will come to take care of us and to meet those needs that begins to form us as people.
Initial shame transactions cannot occur correctly if the infant has no hope in the first place that its caregiver will respond to it appropriately. It can only have that hope if its caregiver has responded to it in the past. Our entire foundation of a sense of time, past present and future, is therefore built upon hope. In a state of hopelessness, powerlessness and helplessness, time is on an altered course. Hope is the psychological food that feeds our being. Without it, we do not even have a self.
And in an environment of inconsistent and undependable hope, an infant’s self becomes fragmented. We are nothing without hope. And I suspect that with the birth into the world of mammals hope was born. It is the loss of hope on the first most fundamental level that the devastation of an individual occurs.
Prior to the age of locomotion when the human brain has developed along with the body to allow an infant to begin to negotiate the world away from its mother, the hope that operated instinctually now has to find confirmation in the “real” world outside of the infant. To the degree the infant is internalizing the modulatory operations that its mother has provided for it, it begins to externalize its relationship between hope, itself, and its environment. It can no longer accept as “real” the fact that what it hopes for will happen. Negotiatable aspects now enter its universe. It can no longer depend on its mother to ALWAYS be there for it.
But this developing system can only operate correctly if the mother was there for the infant in a consistent and dependable fashion in the first place. Working systems are not magically invented out of nothing so that they just appear at some point in time. They are meticulously formed, constructed and built, one tiny neuron at a time, until the system becomes stable as it increases in function and complexity.
Hope does not operate in a vacuum. It’s partner is trust. If an organism has a basic need, and the built-in instinct of hope is operating, once the need has been met, repeatedly and over time the organism connects trust to hope. In the beginning, an infant can do little more than cry to let its caregiver know that it has a need. In some cultures the mothers are so attentive the infant never even has to progress to this stage before someone is there to attend to its need before it even knows that it has one.
An infant will learn very early in its life that it has powers to interact with, and to create interactional scenarios within its human environment. It is gaining from this initial level a sense that it exists in the world and has efficacy, or “power to influence and create.” Development, then, is a process whereby simple blind trust and hope begin to intermix with a sense of competence and confidence in others and then increasingly in the self: need, hope, trust, confidence – these are the natural order of things in a developmental progression toward complexity.
This fundamental progression is interfered with under the conditions of a hostile environment and the end result will be an altered and different brain. There are neurons that serve a purpose and chemical movements and fluctuations within the brain that serve a purpose. Cycles, rhythms of bridging gaps. The way a mother sets up the pattern of attunement and repair when there is a break or rupture of resonance determines the brains ability to internally create abilities that are first external, internally.
I think this all operates around homeostatic equilibrium and a state of balance. It is when a system is at this point that hope is momentarily suspended. At these points all applicable needs are being met and the organism is wanting of nothing more or less.
Hope, then, might be the drive behind all of our drives. If we experience any need at all that moves or arouses our system toward movement or the expenditure of energy in any direction from center-balance-homeostasis, it is first and foremost our hope that we will have that need met that comes into play. That is why helplessness or hopelessness is the first defense we experience. The ability to hope is an absolute need. It initiates the attachment system from the instant we are born.
And when this hope system is damaged, we are damaged. To the degree that it is allowed to operate smoothly we are on our way to autonomy through a secure passage. “Guaranteed secure passage?” NOT!
Some of us get an insecure passage through a unsecured passageway and a resulting very tough journey through life.