Hello, intrepid explorers!
This week in emotional intelligence, we’re going to be talking about the shortcuts your brain makes in order to develop neural pathways. This in turn produces your quick emotional responses to certain kinds of stimuli!
The Marble-Drop of Shame
We learn social strategies early- meaning, things like what we can expect when we ask for help, whether or not people care about our experiences or feelings, how to express affection or emotional responses, etc. All of us grow up internalizing neural pathways of how to express ourselves and how to get what we need.
Many folks have learned to sublimate their needs and feelings- but have reactivity around things they have strong feelings around. Some of us grow up and become more reactive in ways that are obvious to other folks.
Usually, when folks are reactive in a way that externalizes their emotions, they have big, visible feelings. All of these responses are in response to external stimuli, and circle back to our internal narratives and strategies about getting our needs met.
A lot of people who are experiencing their emotions in a reactive way have a lot of shame about this. Most people struggle with feelings of shame while crying in public.
External Stimuli Produces A Lot of Emotional Responses in People
“Stimuli” can be a lot of things- and your awareness to these layers of stimuli often relate to sensitivities you possess.
This can mean being sensitive to things like:
How loud a space is
The kind of people that are there (whether or not you feel safe with those folks, or if you will expected to tolerate a degree of microaggressions or hostility)
The density of people in the space
The level of light, (folks can be very sensitive to fluorescent lights)
Smells, (my buddy who gets headaches from the smell of coffee), etc.
I know folks with degrees of emotional or physical sensitivity are habituated to think they are high-maintenance, because they are used to internalizing that their needs are excessive or inconvenient. This belief largely stems from structural violence that they have internalized.
These are very concrete elements of external stimuli, but social dynamics create a great deal of nuanced external stimuli that we are constantly responding to- tone, body language, etc- that inform the emotional content of our responses to the world outside of us.
But back to your feelings!
DBT has a great model of chain-of-events- namely encouraging folks to identify an external stimuli, and the ensuing compound of emotional responses they have that can create certain patterned results. Something like:
a fight with a friend,
which then escalates to feelings of shame, despondence,
and then often results in whatever catharsis people engage in to feel better.
For some folks, that can be things like self-harm, but other folks have more low-flying strategies like eating your feelings or getting high or texting your ex.
This is a really great model, though I often describe it as a Rube-Goldberg machine, because the results may not necessarily always be chaotic in order for the idea of a chain of behaviors to be useful.
In fact, many emotional Rube-Goldberg machines simply exist to maintain a certain stasis in your understanding of the world. These are usually shame-powered.
So a potential example being:
A friend texts you, inviting you to go to a party.
You worry that the party will be loud, full of unfamiliar folks, you’ll feel pressured to drink or stay out later than you want, it’ll be full of couples or people much too pretty for you to think they might be interested in dating you. So you don’t text back.
You fret that your friend will be unhappy with you both for saying no and avoiding them, and decline to respond to comments they make to you on social media.
The party approaches, you worry that your friend reaches out again.
You feign forgetfulness, or illness, and feel your guts churn with the shame of your social anxiety, lying to your friend, and the disappointment that you don’t have better plans.
Your friend is understanding, if a little irritated or disappointed, and you burrow deeper into your blanket burrito, and hit ‘play next episode’ until it’s time to go to bed, (by “time to go to bed” I acknowledge that this statement is meaningless when the Rube-Goldberg shame machine it working overtime). Meanwhile, you are distracted by the worry that perhaps all of your friends secretly hate you.
Now, there are several different moments- between the spoon flinging the egg, broom falling over, or spinning top that might’ve created opportunities for a different choice.
What Else You Might’ve Done If Your Shame Machine Were Not Working Against You
Noticing your feelings of shame! Getting acquainted with how shame shows up in your body, and in the repetitive chatty patterns of your brain.
Telling your friend you don’t feel like going to a party
Making other plans for things to do that you’re actually interested in
Mentioning to your friend that you’re worried about disappointing them.
The Shame Machine has been in operation for a very long time, and likely is at work doing what it does, which it believes to be purposeful and helpful work.
Unfortunately, there was a time in your life when shame was the best you could come up with, and has now become habit. Rather than flipping pancakes, your sense of self- worth gets flipped over and over by the Shame Rube-Goldberg Machine.
While it takes time and a lot of attention to detail, therapy is an excellent tool for deconstructing the machinations of your particular Shame Machine.
Give me a call if you need some help with that; I’m not a cause-and-effect machine that produces pancakes, but I can help you recognize some of those cause-and-effects and we can talk about your favorite pancake toppings.