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Shame and Attachment — from Attachment Disorder Maryland

Shame and Attachment

The page linked above is talking about ‘wishing to disappear’, states of experiencing the world in slow motion, and the endless cycle of sabotage. I’ve possibly never been so relieved to identify so deeply …

Description: The feeling of shame can be described as a sense of smallness, worthlessness, and powerlessness in a given situation.  …  It is triggered by a “perceived” break in one’s connectedness to others or to oneself. This is compounded by feeling exposed and extremely concerned about another’s evaluation of oneself.  Shame can be defined as the emotional experience of another’s devaluation or disgust, real or imagined. It is a self-absorbed, self-centered, and isolating experience.  While acutely feeling shame, an individual is not considering the implications of his behavior for others, but is focused solely on the possible impact on self.  Shame essentially splits a person into both an “observer” and “the one being observed”.  The observer part witnesses and criticizes the part being observed.  Sometimes, the presence of another is not even required to generate shame.

Shame & behavior:  Shame is self-perpetuating.  Internalized shame tends to induce behavior in the future that will lead to an outcome of further shame.  This is not recognized at the time.  The original motive for the behavior appears to have nothing to do with shame.  Yet, shame invariably results, and this final outcome indicates the true, underlying motive for the behavior as being the generation of shame, rather than the prior illusory motive.  Behavioral attempts to escape shame always work this way.  This can easily lead to an upwards spiral as increasing amounts of shame accumulate within which then fuels further shame-creating behavior.  …

Systemic impact:  Shame is more than a feeling.  It is an entire organismic state that affects multiple systems in the body.  Shame operates at primitive levels below the reach of rational thinking.  Shame brings with it a subjective sense of time slowing down which serves to magnify anything that occurs during a state of shame.  It also is accompanied by intensified feedback from all perceptual modalities, particularly autonomic reactions such as blushing, sweating, and increased heart rate.  These autonomic reactions induce a state of heightened bodily awareness which combines with the slowed sense of time to produce the extreme self-consciousness that is a part of feeling shame.

Shame and trauma:  Shame both mirrors trauma and is bound up with it.  Much of the power of what we term traumatic events lies in the shame bound up with these events.  Through traumatic events, perpetrators can download their own shame onto the victim who ends up being pervaded by it.  For the victim, this becomes an experience of powerlessness or helplessness.  Perceptions of being powerless create shame, for the self is seen as being weak / ineffective.  This often leads children to vow to “do it right” the next time in an attempt to overcome the trauma and prevent further trauma.  This can easily evolve into a perfectionistic stance which, in the end, only fuels the shame, as perfectionism generally guarantees failure.

Shame signals:  In addition to aversion to all eye contact, shame can manifest as fragmented thought and speech including: pauses, repetitions, false starts, inaudible voice level, and unclear diction.  All of these are common with AD children.  Subjectively this often gets reported as “going blank”, somewhat like dissociation.

Coping Defenses: The primary defenses for handling shame are denial, dissociation from all feeling states, splitting, withdrawal, perfectionism, entitlement, externalization, rage-driven behavior, pre-emptive shaming of oneself, and inability to give or receive praise.  With repeated use, these defenses, like all defenses, can function so quickly that the child never even consciously experiences any shame….

… Attempting to counter all this with positive reassurance is potentially damaging, for it can accentuate the shame by being so at odds with the self-image, and it can make the person offering such feedback seem completely out of touch to the AD child.


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Psych Central: Dissociation — The Psyche’s Way Out of Pain

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the silenced inner scape


Isolation (Photo credit:

the terror i felt at the feeling
that no one took the inner
side of me seriously
and no one ever would
no one even saw it
no one ever responded

my inner reactions are wrong
they are not real

beyond the defectiveness
and unloveability
and fortotten-ness
beyond the abandon-ness
and hopelessness
there was a silent, deafening
physically threatening
invisible terror

i learned to pretend it wasn't there
and do greatness at all costs
my greatness was pretended
even in crisis
even when i was abused
even when i was suicidal

such shocking aloneness
i have known


a piece of my soul

So I sit down to blog tonight to process. I’m aware that something in me deeply wants to tell a story, and understand my reaction, and have someone get me, because I need to get me, and the only way I can get me is to share it with someone else.

I think this is a principle fundamental to my recovery, and sorely sorely lacking in the provincial mental health care that I have experienced, generally speaking.

It’s the transformative effect of deeply sharing and deeply witnessing. It is this effect I have witnessed in the circle practices I have been blessed to be exposed to, that I have found most helpful in my recovery from a life time of suicidality. I find that with most of my contact with provincial mental health care, the person is somehow trying to halt, suppress and/or minimize my inner experience, in the effort to “treat” it.

I am a survivor of childhood emotional neglect and abuse, and a member of the 12-step recovery program for Adult Children of Alcoholic and Dysfunctional Families (ACA for short). My fellow ACA members would all most likely have similar reactions to anyone telling them that they “use dramatic language,” and especially someone at the other end of the line at a CRISIS RESPONSE UNIT telling them that this is written in their file.

Because of my experience in ACA, I will venture to generalize here, and say that most survivors of neglect and abuse in childhood have been told all their lives that they are “dramatizing what happened” or somehow made to feel that what they are feeling is inappropriate and inaccurate, and that they are not perceiving reality. I will also venture to say here that his recurring message causes almost as much damage as the trauma itself, if not more.

ACA is a program for people with childhood trauma, abuse and neglect, with literature that speaks of the importance of feeling the feelings we never felt, and how difficult it is for us to a) recognize when we might be in danger, b) reach out for help and c) talk about our feelings. To be told I use dramatic language justifies my fear in doing all three of those things, and re-opens many aspects of pain, fear, self-hatred and hopelessness in me.

I was deeply and adversely triggered by this contact with the CRT, and the idea that every person who works there  is going to see that statement when they open my file. I stayed on the line for nearly a half an hour and thanked the woman at the end of the call, feeling strangely confused; went numb and dissociated until I arrived at an ACA meeting that night. In speaking what had happened, I became very angry, and left for the second part of the meeting.

The ACA welcome speaks about how we, as Adult Children, grew up with the rules of “Don’t talk, don’t trust and don’t feel,” and how the goal of our meetings and our recovery is to break those rules.

Pertinent words from the ACA text book, which have brought me great clarity, validation and healing from experiences like the one I am writing about:

“Every adult child has unexpressed grief, which is usually represented by the symptoms of depression, lethargy, or forms of dissociation. Grief is loss that is stuck beneath denial, willful forgetting, and the fear of being perceived as dramatizing the past. … If we sought help before ACA, our childhood loss was usually diagnosed as depression and commonly treated with ineffective methods.” – Page 199

“Identifying our feelings and talking with others about how we feel is a critical step in breaking the isolation we have lived with for so long.”

“We are seeking a full remembrance of the childhood … With a full remembrance, we revisit the feelings that came with the abuse or hypercritical behavior of the caregivers. We remember the event, and we remember the feelings. By seeking a full remembrance, we break the “don’t remember rule” of the family.”   – Page 34

“…uses dramatic language.” When I hear that, I interpret that my language is not appropriate or accurate to the reality of the situation. I am hurled back into the confusion about what is real, doubting what I am feeling and what is really happening, and the isolation and shame in that confusion that I have felt all my life. To me, this statement invalidates what is real for me, and implies that I am exaggerating my experience to get attention. Actually, I am trying to put words to it, to name it, to make it real so that I can heal from it. I am trying not to isolate, and not to hide or minimize my feelings.

How am I using dramatic language when I say that I am scared and trying to be pro-active about finding myself alone in a big house, and have often felt dissociated and suicidal in this situation? How am I using dramatic language when stating the fact that I haven’t eaten a meal in 3 days since my last therapy session, and have stayed home for several normal parts of my routine, and I have been feeling residual parasympathetic shock that I am just starting to come out of?

Can you handle the word suicidal? How about depression, or sadness. Or here, how about I tell you I’m feeling “off,” and completely leave out all of the above?

Are you going to tell someone who calls in and says they’re feeling suicidal that they are using dramatic language? Oh, yeah, that person isn’t really feeling suicidal; they’re just being dramatic. They’re just wanting attention.

I’m not sure if you could have invalidated me or re-triggered me in a bigger way. It’s taken me 2 years of recovery while not working in order to be able to recognize when I might be in danger, and be able to take action and reach out before I harm myself. Minimizing the drama of that is hazardous. Putting any negative judgement on what I share when I reach out, especially that implies I am exagerating, is also very, very hazardous to my recovery.

I feel like never calling the crisis line again. Several of the professionals I have been in contact with in the provincial system, as well as the beliefs and programs that structure its care (such as CBT, positive psychology, etc.) seem to want to help me to minimize the pain. While I can understand how this is a very logical desire when someone is in pain, it doesn’t lead me to the cut on my leg that the pain is trying to tell me about, and that would take away all the pain if healed well; and most importantly, it directly re-triggers the very thing that damaged my sense of safety, self-worth, stability and identity in the first place.

Who is the Crisis Response Team there for? Because it certainly doesn’t seem like they’re there for survivors of childhood neglect and abuse, or whatever the f#@k I survived that has brought me to this healing path.




More on Dissociation & Identity Confusion

I’ve been triggered by two prospective job situations, which spurred two opposite presentations of myself to the prospective employers.
For the one, at a disability resource centre run for and by people with disabilities, I sent my prospective boss my story on Canada AM Speak Out on Suicide. I acknowledged that it was a lot more personal than would ordinarily be considered appropriate, but that I need a work situation where I don’t have to hide. This person went from wanting to get me in as soon as humanly possible to not responding for what has now been 4 days. And so, maybe she is afraid of me now, or doesn’t want to hire me. The way I see it, that is good information. Great! Very clear. I do not want to have anything to do with her.
Okay, so the second prospective job I did not actually send in my application to. I only got to updating my resume and writing a new bio, and froze there.
There were all my awards, all of the perfect experience and attributes for the position, all of the indicators of exceptional talent that would get me hired in a flash. It took me into a place of hiding again. Pretending. Denying. Dissociating. Shame. If I did get hired, I would have to deny the underbelly of me again.
Tantrum. Images of head bashing. Self-hatred, hopelessness, panic, isolation, abandonment.
It’s good to observe that I just can’t go there right now. I just can’t go there. I feel sad.
Confession on Dissociation — November 23rd 
Everyone else could see how damaged I was — how hard I tried, how hard life was, how shy and insecure I felt at times. But me — I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t admit it. Instead, I bent over backwards to deny / hide it, and present myself as a leader, an honours student, a talented person, instead.
Now, I want to redeem myself with everyone, the world.
It’s as if I’ve been inviting people over to my (metaphorical) house, with decapitated heads on the coffee table that I can’t even see.
Some leave right away, without an explanation, and I am baffled. Some pretend with me in the moment that the heads aren’t there, but never visit again unless it is convenient or they need something.
What am I not seeing now?
Living with mental illness is like telling people about the heads and inviting them in anyway.
Mundane moment i’ve been grieving: Award ceremony for receiving the national leadership award. Fall 2010. I don’t want to go because i don’t want to be seen alone, because i feel alienated and alone in my community. My non-profit and my marriage have failed and I have not been open about either; people have seen me working as a cashier, and drawn their own conclusions, avoiding my till ’cause they don’t know what to say. I have been sleeping on massage tables, couches & floors in basements & trailer parks for much of the previous year. I tell my school counselor that I just might not go to the ceremony. I call my Dad, courageously tell him I don’t have anyone to go with me to the ceremony and that I’m thinking of not going at all, and ask him if he is able to come. He doesn’t understand. He says no.     And so, I didn’t go.
In 12 step work, we often try to notice how a pattern in our lives began, and how it is affecting us now. This helps us forgive ourselves and release the pattern. Sometimes. 🙂 I’m writing about this because it’s been triggered, so obviously, I have not been able to release it. But then I start to feel a little bit out of place with 12-step work. Because  mental illness is not simply a pattern that can be released. It’s not like a pattern of lying, or over-eating, or drinking.

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snippets of today

One: feeling the unfelt feelings of previous dissociations. there is more to my step four. I became aware of this while down island this week, in a city that has lots of past times for me.  I was feeling all the feelings I hadn’t felt when i was living there. Even just a mundane memory of walking down the street was painful because i was feeling what i was dissociated from feeling at the time. the degree of loneliness, sadness and simultaneous pressure and anxiety was almost unbearable; but at the time, I unfortunately survived by not feeling it, not recognizing it for what it was, thinking everyone felt this way, thinking it would go away if i didn’t look at it, and just kept moving. thinking no one knew when i covered it up. all the times i covered it up; i need to admit these to myself. all the times i betrayed, sabotaged and isolated myself by not being honest about what i was feeling. there is shame there, and a few dozen truckloads of sorrow.

Two: being alone for thanksgiving, not wanting to spend time with Mom.  staying focused on making some food, freezing some food, re-organizing closets, relaxing, catching up with a few long-distance friends. keeping my days balanced. it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. i don’t have to freak out that its a holiday and everyone else is living life as a family, and I am living life alone.   stay in the moment. participate in the celebration in my own way, any way, despite not having a family. i am still valid and worthy of love.

[Image courtesy of arquazuarma]


authenticating my symptoms — dissociation & its ingredients

A few days ago I posted on what mania is to me in “authenticating my symptoms — manic manifests as confusion“.

'exhaustion' by Rafi Talby

‘exhaustion’ by Rafi Talby

Today, i have been escaping my feelings all day, and gradually working myself into a dissociative (rated 3/3) and suicidal (1/3) state — the other side of the borderline coin.

The two grains of sand that have gotten me to a diary card score of 96/100 are:

  1. underestimated exhaustion from an afternoon of (extremely positive) social contact with a bunch of new friends yesterday evening. I keep thinking I am normal again and can handle these things like a ‘normal’ person, ie. be fine the next day. I need to remember how easily and extremely exhausted I get, even from positive stimuli; and how easily thrown off my sense of routine I am from doing anything spontaneously.
  2. invalidation / external reality changes: My doctor’s appointment this morning, which I had forgotten about (because of the spontaneous socializing yesterday) until I woke up a half hour before I was supposed to be there and had to skip prayer, meditation, breakfast and coffee in order to make it on time. The real “grain of sand” in the doctor’s appointment however was not the chaotic manner in which I arrived, but the conversation I had with her about my mental health treatment. Although it seemed like no big deal in the moment, it turns out that it was a huge deal to learn what i did. Someone I thought was helping me in a reality of validation in recovery I thought I had accomplished is actually not really there at all (I will write a separate post in this). What it took me the entire day to understand is that this news was a sudden loss of identity and validation.

So, how does exhaustion + sudden loss of validation affect me? If i am unable to acknowledge what i am feeling, the result is dissociation. I’ve linked the word for you, so you can look up what the DSM says about it; but for me, this is what dissociation feels like:

unknown artist / source

  1. Suddenly, it feels like nobody sees me. I disappear. I long desperately and dangerously to be held, enveloped by another’s love for me. I am extremely needy. I cannot remember that I am loved and connected to people.
  2. Loss of all structure — nothing makes sense, nothing has purpose, nothing feels secure.
  3. I become lost in a sea of chaos that swallows me; I have no sense of where I am, who I am or what I am doing here in life. I have no place in the world.
  4. All motivation leaves me. All I want to do is escape and distract myself.
  5. Compulsive escape & isolation — I escape these feelings with compulsive and meaningless activity such as looking for images on Google for hours on end, and cease all self-care such as eating. Anything that takes me away from this type of activity in this state is almost unbearably annoying.
  6. No sense of time: I forget about everything on my to-do list and feel like I have all the time in the world. Life is a great abyss of the unknown, and passing the time with distraction and escape becomes my survival method.
  7. Panic and despair leading to suicidality. I slowly become more and more aware of what is going on, and it feels increasingly unbearably and hopeless.

I need to note that when I use the word suddenly, I do mean that with one interaction, one statement, in a very short moment, my entire sense of reality can change; however, and contrary to traditional descriptions of dissociation, it is not nearly as dramatic for me as it may sound. Actually, in the moment, it is not even evident to others OR MYSELF.

'The Mask' by EgoAniAnqueetus (altered by HJ)

‘The Mask’ by EgoAniAnqueetus (altered by HJ)

This is an aspect of my experience that astounds me. That I can be having a traumatic experience and no one, including me, can have a clue that this is happening. It comes out in the 24 hours afterwards — a “delayed” reaction, you could say. First, there is compulsive escape and loss of motivation and no sense of time; then I begin to feel panic, hopelessness and despair which leads to suicidality. At this point, I realize something is going on (!) and I need to employ a tool, such as calling a friend, or journaling, or 12-step work. These things allow me to get in touch with my feelings, which de-escalates the whole situation. It is almost inevitably a big whopping Homer Simpson “Dope!” experience, in the sense that it has taken me all these hours to simply be conscious of a (usually healthy) emotional response to a situation (which, if it causes me to dissociate, is usually a re-lived experience of trauma).

In this case, it took me about 12 hours to get in touch with feelings of abandonment, anger and outcry towards the mental health care system in my part of the world, which I will be writing about subsequently (you can now read about this experience in my post ‘government-funded mental health care for BPD in bc, canada‘)

So, dear readers, what is dissociation to you? Any other Quiet Borderlines out there relate to an extreme internal experience that is completely invisible to others and yourself?

With great love,