As we saw in Part 2 of this series, stress and shame are closely interwoven – stress can stop you from leading an enjoyable or productive life, which can lead to feelings of failure and shame, which serve to make stress worse. In other words, stress and shame reinforce each other in a vicious cycle. I’m not suggesting that stress and shame always go together, but shame is always stressful unless you can find a way to get perspective on it, to achieve emotional distance from it.
Remember that to enjoy life and be productive, your Social Engagement System must be fully activated. For that to happen, you need to relax enough to think clearly about the sources of your stress, and to have a sense that you can do something about it.
In the West, we are schooled to believe that intellect trumps everything; that if you can understand something, you can control it, that if you can find a way of analysing yourself, you can master your emotions and control yourself. The trouble is that one’s own shame is not easily understood by brain power alone. In fact, trying to think your way out of shame is a bit like trying to move a boat by blowing into the sail while you are sitting in it – the harder you blow, the more tired you get and the more you get nowhere. When it comes to shame, the harder you try to think your way out of it, the more stressed you get and the less capable of rational thought you become.
The solution to shame may seem counter-intuitive: instead of thinking hard, you need to think less. Instead of trying to escape from your feelings of shame, you need to experience them as fully as possible. It’s only by becoming fully aware of your emotions that you can change them.
This might sound like it doesn’t make sense, but you can do the following simple exercise right now to help you understand what I mean:
1.Pick something in your life that is a small problem for you – it’s important that you pick only a small problem. Make a mental note of it, or write it down. We will return to it in due course.
2.Get comfortable in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for 20 minutes.
3.Take at least two minutes to notice everything around you. Notice what you can see, smell, hear, taste and feel. Keep your attention only on what is going on around you.
4.Now take at least two minutes to notice the feelings inside your body. Notice if there’s tension anywhere and consciously relax it. Shift the position of your body if you need to. Keep your attention only on your internal physical feelings (not your thoughts or emotions).
5.Now take at least two minutes to notice your emotions and thoughts. When a thought comes, don’t go into it, instead acknowledge it and let the next thought come. Do the same with your emotions – allow an emotion to come, acknowledge it, and allow it to stay or go, whatever seems most natural.
6.Now bring to mind the small problem you first identified. Notice how your physical feelings , thoughts and emotions change.
7.If there is new tension, sit with it and consciously relax while gently holding the problem in mind.
8.Continue to hold the problem in mind and notice how your reaction to it changes as you sit with it. Notice how your thoughts and emotions change as you consciously physically relax while you sit with the problem.
9.Gently return your attention to the things around you.
10.You might like to write down your experience of this exercise, so you can return to it later if you want to.
So how was it for you? I imagine that when you brought the problem to mind, you felt yourself physically tensing up. I imagine that when you consciously physically relaxed and held the problem in mind without trying to change it, then you noticed it changing by itself. If so, then you have discovered the basic principle behind relieving your stress and activating your Social Engagement System, which is the part of your thinking mind that is capable of creatively and spontaneously discovering new ways of thinking about things and solving problems – but only if you let it.
Of course, I am not so naïve as to imagine that all you need to do to solve your problems is to relax. Nevertheless, relaxation through physical self-awareness is fundamental to transforming shame into a sense of personal power and control. This is because of the way our survival instincts operate – as I explained in the previous article, we have evolved (or were designed – depending on your point of view) a set of defensive responses that are primarily physical in nature, because they emerged millions of years before human sentience appeared. Remember that stress is perceived by your unconscious mind and by your body as a threat. Therefore, in order to gain perspective on your shame, you need to signal to your body that you are not under threat, and your mind will naturally follow.
Once you have found a way to relax your body and mind, you might find that you want to move, physically. That’s because when you are tense, your body is “stuck” either in readiness for fight or flight, or you have become frozen or even flopped. Movement and activity can be just as relaxing, calming and motivating as the type of exercise presented in this article. Many people who are chronically stressed, ashamed, even depressed have found release and invigoration through sport, dance, cycling, walking, often as part of a group. That’s because doing activity with like-minded others brings a sense of energy, alertness and a sense of belonging. If mixing with others is too much for you, start small and work up.
Remember that overcoming stress and shame is typically a slow process. Do small things daily to help yourself and don’t try to fix your whole life problem all at once. Easy does it.
31st August 2016