Connection In Practice: The Tricks of Shame and Hope

My regular readers will know that I give my posts to a panel of mostly-male early readers before they go public. One of these early readers read For Men Who Desperately Need Autonomy and asked me to add a section flippantly called How You Can Put This Into Practice Right Now If You Are Flipping Out Because You Realize This Is You And Holy Fuck What Do You Do What Do You Do Holy Fuck. Which is apparently one of the normal responses. So anyone who is experiencing this shock of recognition and wanting a what-next, this one’s for you.

What to do if you recognize yourself in the previous post?

You may read and realize you have been hurting someone you care about without understanding why, and you may want to put this realization into practice.

Here are some common pitfalls to look out for. For a handy shorthand, let’s say they fall into the category of cognitive distortions. They are actually more than ‘cognitive’: many systems in the body are involved in these false reactions to external events. The key is to catch the distortion when it arises, and not fall sway to it. Eventually you can replace distorted reactions with accurate awareness of reality, but at the very least, you must catch a few key distortions if you want to avoid common traps.

1. “Not good enough.”

Internalized feelings of inadequacy are a massive block to moving forward in a good and healthy way. It is crucial that you recognize these thoughts and feelings of inadequacy are taking place entirely in you. Like a conch shell held up to the ear that gives you back only the sound of your own blood.

Not everybody is immediately good at every thing. I am not a great rock climber, I just am not. That’s reality. If I bragged about how great I am at climbing, and yelled at anyone who commented that I actually am a novice and have a ways to go, or strapped in with someone I liked without first learning how to belay, I’d hurt a lot of people. Some times your capacity and skill at being safe for women you get close to just isn’t where it needs to be, and that’s got to be able to be discussed calmly and openly. Your actions, your current capacity, are the point, not your essence.

The leap between action and essence is happening inside you, and you must separate these out before you can go any further. If there were no Velcro inside you for external referents to stick to, you would not experience shame when someone you care about is in distress, even if that distress is caused by something you did. If actions feel like essence inside you, what you are witnessing is your own inner noise.

The shame acts as a powerful filter preventing you from perceiving reality. Feelings of shame or self-loathing inside you create the reality you are witnessing. I mean this not in some cosmic sense, but in a very practical, very pragmatic application.

Keep in mind that for someone who loves you, no matter how angry they are, it may seem absurd that you could be in any way shameful. We believe horrible things about ourselves that we would never believe about one another.

It may be impossible for someone who cares about you to reach you about this until you have done your own healing of this shame, loving it yourself (and hearing what the people who love you are actually saying about you), until it begins to break up and soften. Because no matter how many times she tells you how good you are,  you will be unable to receive, perceive, or internalize what she actually believes and feels if there is no place to connect it to inside you. You will literally not hear the good things being given to you. In their bids to keep our genetic ancestors alive, these parts of our brains and nervous systems learned to create rigid ‘rules’ out of random early experiences. To catch the distortions in these unconscious ‘rules’ is extremely hard, like one hand clapping.

If you have a strong inner shame landscape, it doesn’t really matter if someone you care about just cries and says she loves you and asks for you to come close, or if she criticizes in a clumsy attempt to ask for what she needs. You can always express that you need others to tell you their needs in a constructive way, and an emotionally mature partner will always work on doing this, but if your inner landscape holds a lot of unquestioned shame, you will receive both kinds of communication the same way. Her distress, however she expresses it, will feel to you like an accusation. She may in turn feel utterly powerless to reach you, even when she sees your goodness at a time you do not.

If you have not accepted that the shame landscape is yours and yours alone, no matter what is going on in real life out there, when you witness someone you care about expressing normal healthy hurt, you will still believe she is saying you are “not good enough,” your body will shut down, and this will prevent you from responding in a loving way and exiting the spiral.

The only way to heal this and get able to connect with the reality of your inherent goodness (which, if this other person has chosen to care about you, is likely much more obvious to the other person than it is to you) is to work directly on self-love, to recognize and work directly with your inner feelings of self-worth. If you have not done this work and still believe the screen is the world, you will remain unable to receive the love and care that is likely coming your way unbeknownst to you, and will instead feed the hurt spiral by acting out your shame feelings.

Logic doesn’t really touch these distortions because the relationship between the verbal neocortex and the nonverbal limbic brain (and the vagus nerve and other aspects of the body’s alarm system) is more complex than that.

However, objective reality is that we are all inherently good.

Shame never has any basis in reality.

The truth is that you already are good enough. You always were. Your actions can be not good enough, and your essence remains good. Chances are, she has told you and shown you and told you this, and if you have not done your own healing, you have not been able to take it in. You have to have the gate in order to receive the gift.

The reason it matters so much that you catch and begin to recognize an internal shame landscape is that your inner beliefs about yourself contribute the primary push in a vicious cycle in which you feel unconscious shame, so you act in an unconscious, hurtful way, so the other person feels hurt, so they express hurt (in constructive or less constructive ways) and then you feel more shame and you perceive it as coming from them when in fact it comes entirely from you. If your shame arises as a result of your actions, you will hurt her after hurting her, and never understand why.

You must accept the source of the spiral to begin the climb out of your dilemma. Because turning towards one another in trust rather than away is the healthy optimal pattern, and because shame blocks connection in the first place, the spiral begins in you, and you must fully recognize this if you are to end it.

Recognize just how deeply and profoundly any feelings of shame you have are a distortion woven deeply into your limbic brain based in earlier experiences, not the present. That “not good enough” experience is not coming from outside you, even if she yells at you to pick up your socks or cries when you run. Even if there are at times external triggers – if she voices her need of you in a distressed or frightened or hurt way – the shame is still happening inside you and blocking your capacity to interact with the reality in front of you: anger and hurt, not shame.

The way to heal and work with feelings of unquestioned, primordial hurt, shame, or self-loathing are to love them. The part of our core self that feels those kinds of feelings is actually the most beautiful part of the self. Once you get to know this part of you, by welcoming it, cradling those little alone feelings, you realize those feelings are just who you were before your original trust would have broken when you were very young and needed mirroring and care. Sometimes these feelings can come down an ancestral line for generations and no one knows where they began. It is no one’s fault. It is your most beautiful self that is scared and alone in this hurt because this is the part of the self that does trust. Once you love and nurture this part of you for long enough, you will discover it was a sweet well of goodness all along.

“On the surface, the shame over not being able to provide what someone needs is massive, and apparently that’s a big thing for men. However, underneath, there is a complex operation of shame going on in masculinity. If you have shamed yourself for having perfectly normal needs, you may not realize that you are doing so, and instead may perceive those same needs as shameful when they appear in other people. You may then actively shame people when they express those same normal needs you have internalized as shameful for yourself. So let’s say you learned very early on that needing to be held tenderly and gazed upon lovingly is shameful. You put it away, and can’t access it or even remember it. When someone you are lovers with has that very normal and healthy need, instead of comforting her appropriately, you may treat her as shameful and confusing, or become angry and withdrawn, and then blame her for this tension by calling her ‘needy’ or ‘unreasonable’ – when really it is your own denied need that you are seeing.”  – from The VocalIs Nurturance Culture the Solution to Toxic Masculinity?

These feelings of shame and self-loathing can be long-frozen, this young part of the self all alone inside you. Shame can hide in plain sight, buried under layers and layers of normalization in which you take it to be so real and unquestionable you don’t even notice it has been gnawing at you all your life. At first as you begin the practice of loving this part of the self, it can feel like you are not getting anywhere. Keep it up. Without taking literally the demands of this part of you (to attack or to flee or to make your feelings someone else’s fault), simply direct hours of compassion and love there. “Yes, you are ok, yes you are completely loved, you are welcome here, no, that is not true, that was never true, you are good, you are beautiful, I love you,yes, it’s ok.”  Imagine if you could beam as many hours of compassion and love to that place as you originally gave to carving the tracks of self-loathing.

At first it will feel like you are not getting anywhere. It is like changing the course of a river: it happens slowly until it happens fast. Continue to beam love and compassion to this part of the self, continue to recognize the attempts to flee or deflect are not to be taken as real, and slowly, slowly, then quickly all at once, like an iceburg calving, change comes. You will repeat this many times, to undo the long years of carving pathways of hatred within yourself. And you will begin to perceive others more wholly, more fully.

The sooner you can begin to understand and work with the true location of the distortion, the closer you will be to sidestepping the engine that generates the spiral. As long as you continue to believe this experience is external to yourself, you will continue to feed it, and it will continue to occur.

2. Despair and hopelessness

Cycles have rhythm. Processes are just that: they have beginnings, middles, and closings. If a cycle does not complete, it begins again in an effort to run its course. This is a good thing, as it means there is hope and you can always try again. When you cause harm and then recognize it and apologize, a process of forgiveness and repair may be attempting to move inside her. When someone has been hurt by a person they trust who realizes belatedly the harm they have caused, a genuine apology initiates a cycle that must be allowed to run its full course. Panicking and freezing it in the middle by becoming defensive is like turning off the washing machine when it is on agitate because you believe it will be on agitate forever. Panicked thoughts freeze one moment in time and do not know what comes next. You must wait and be calm and loving and stay genuinely present, connected, and remorseful while the cycle runs. Stay with it until it arrives on its own at the rinse cycle and then the spin cycle, when clean clothing – trust – becomes available to you again.

In other words, when you have hurt someone you care about, if you want to get to a good place again, you have to understand how healing from that hurt looks and feels so you can ride the cycle through the crest and down to the other side, without interrupting the cycle at a scary point midway. There may be stored up tension from not being believed or hurting from the weeks or months of harm. It has to come out before she can feel heard and the hurt can resolve. You must trust the process.

If you have realized you’ve harmed her, and apologized, and a wave of hurt comes your way, she is not attacking you, she is absorbing your apology and finally feeling heard. The middle of the cycle can look like anger or hurt that finally is able to be voiced, as she absorbs that you are now with her again. You must not listen to your feelings of despair and hopelessness at this moment, as they will lead you to give up before the cycle has completed, which will “prove” to you that there was no hope. This can happen to anyone who had less than optimal nurturance growing up; I suspect that avoidant attachers, because they gave up on getting essential needs met at a very early age, are particularly prone to despair and hopelessness and must recognize these as the distortions they are if they want cycles of forgiveness and repair to complete themselves so moving on becomes possible.

Trust is a physiological process, not a conceptual one; learn how to trust the signs of the body and trust it to move through the stages of hurt, anger, forgiveness, and resolution.

If this seems like a lot of work, well, so is learning how to walk, talk, tie your shoes, brush your hair, or read. Typically we are given these tools and experiences over a long developmental period when we are young, inculcated by caregivers who themselves had healthy models, over many healthy years of development. Parenting oneself as an adult when there were gaps or missed developmental capacities is a lot of work, but it’s work that we need to have a healthy world. One in which our next generations can grow up more whole, and free of the distortions and violence that we unconsciously enact on one another when we do not recognize and heal what was not given to us originally.

This is reality. After a break of trust in which you are not attuned, accessible, responsive, if you really want to protect relationship and build autonomy, the only way to fix the harm and move back towards trust is to do prompt repair. Hold the person, let them come near, look at them, turn subtly towards them inside yourself in a loving way, and apologize. Let them express their hurt. Hold the container, and keep your inner orientation turned towards them lovingly until you move through together to the other side. A calm will emerge if you give the cycle the time it needs to reach completion.

3. Testing for effect

The key to nurturing is to give it because you love giving it. It does not take effect if you nurture while waiting to see if some expected result will emerge. If you give reassurance while waiting to see what effect it has, then Schrodinger’s cat style, the observer will wreck the experiment. No one feels safe when they feel they must get safe or their safety will vanish.

If you reassure while checking to see if you are allowed to go be disconnected soon after, it will land without effect. If she does not respond the way you want while you are waiting and watching for her to, you may fall into the trap of hopelessness and repeatedly disrupt the iterative cycle that is the emergence of trust. Even if this happens quietly, and you think only you notice, on her end it is very loud. It is your contribution to the despair you are feeling. Just like repair, trust is an iterative cycle, too.

If you can subtly turn towards her inside you, instead of turning away, and if you can stay turned towards her, choosing it moment after moment and carefully repairing breaches of safety when they occur; if you can catch your own distorted beliefs and do your inner work to heal whatever landscape of shame is in you, you may find that all your distortions and fears are for naught and that you move through to emotional connection and safety much, much faster than you might expect.

4. Viewing needs as weak.

This is a distortion typically held by insecure attachers. The funny thing about insecure attachers is that if we were raised to view normal needs as signs of weakness, we may be unable to see that half of the human beings around us have a completely different assumption about them. Needs are great. Needs are normal. Far from being signs of weakness, needs are precisely how human beings bond and are meant to.

So the first step if you catch yourself feeling any of the “insecure” responses to normal human need is to stop, ask yourself where that feeling comes from, and reverse it. Recognize that needs exist to be met, that’s all.

Some readers have reported feelings of disgust, repulsion, or shame at even hearing words like ‘need’. If this is you, that is where you have work to do.

5. Learn and practice healthy ‘time outs.’

Sometimes humans, even humans who really like one another, hurt one another and one or the other person feels a need to go away for a bit to cool off. One’s attachment style, upbringing, and even the hormone balance in your body can all be factors in whether you are inclined to turn towards or away from your partner in moments of conflict or distress. In a moment when one of you feels the need to cut and run, what you can do to create safety and protect relationship in these moments is to use an agreed-on time out protocol, which creates a bridge across moments of disconnection. If in a heated moment your body’s fight or flight response tells you to take off, and you have an understanding created in advance, you can go. Just go, even without a word if you need to, and then within 20 minutes (or a time lapse you mutually agree on well in advance), connect back in either in person or by text or phone to say “I love you, I’ll be back in a bit, I just had to take a time out.”

If you both practice being understanding in these moments, knowing the other person will connect back in under 20 minutes/whatever your agreed gap time is, and even if they want a little time they’ll be “back for dinner,” or “back in an hour,” or “love you, will be back by bedtime,” or whatever the next comfortable connection time would be, then you can both laugh and greet one another with kindness and moments of rupture don’t become a big deal.

And obviously, of course, if this is hard for you, get appropriate help. No internet blog can stand in for professionally qualified counselling with a registered psychologist. For those who would like to work within an attachment framework, Imago therapy is often helpful.

Also feel free to join the Nurturance Culture and Masculinity Discussion Space

If you would like resources that you can share with others to help you along this path to autonomy and interdependence, these are resources I’ve found helpful in making sense of limbic reality:

The Cost of Stress in Your Intimate Relationships – Gabor Mate interview
How to Feel Safe and Secure With Your Partner – Stan Tatkin
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, Bell Hooks
Wired for Love, Stan Tatkin
Hold me Tight, Sue Johnson
A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon
Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller

“How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” – bell hooks

More by the same author:

The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture

Own, Apologize, Repair: Coming Back to Integrity

This blog has grown into a book!
Turn This World Inside Out: the Emergence of Nurturance Culture
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*men: I want to be clear here that I am using this term in a trans-inclusive way to mean cis and trans men, and gnc people who identify with / feel they have lived experience of conditioning into masculinity.

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14 thoughts on “Connection In Practice: The Tricks of Shame and Hope

  1. I definitely cried. Again, your insights are very valuable. You’ve helped me realize things I’ve been realizing in this past year. It is so hard to get over shame and defeat/hopelessness. I want you to know that your writing is helping me and others. Keep up your amazing work! I will use your work as a reference when I am helping others.

    Peace in, peace out, peace everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

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