The Inner Voices of Shame

Georgia Devita ArtworkShame is painful. When we experience shame, we live in constant fear of being rejected. We become trapped in various avoidance strategies to escape the pain. But shame left untreated grows more powerful. And it can often lead into behaviours that invite even greater shame.

To effectively work with shame, it’s important to understand the neurobiology of shame and why it’s so difficult to erase its deep tracing on the nervous system. Furthermore, we need to understand why shame vigilantly protects itself, and how traditional treatments may be sustaining shame or driving it even deeper.


The 3 Inner Components of Shame

Many people hold on to a deep sense of shame – a feeling that they’re just plain bad. According to Dr Richard Schwartz, founder of Internal Family Systems therapy, there are multiple parts of the self at play in the psychology of shame. One of these parts often locks the person in this negative space of feeling bad.

Dr Schwartz says that we’re all born with the knowledge that our lives depend on being accepted by our tribe. We know we’re not going to survive without the help of a tribe or family or community. “There’s a terror that comes with being shamed – a survival terror.”

To defend ourselves, then, against doing anything that might bring on that shame of not being accepted by our tribe, we develop what is commonly known as an inner critic. The inner critic is often misunderstood in psychotherapy, but according to Dr. Schwartz, it is just a part of the psyche that is desperately trying to keep us from getting shamed by the outside world.

For people who have a lot of experience with childhood shame in particular, that critic often takes on the voice of the shaming parent. It’s desperate to get you to behave the way that a parent wanted you to – so that you don’t get more shame from that parent. The inner critic says, “You’re bad enough already and if you do this other thing, you’re going to be even worse.”

Alongside the inner critic, there exists a young, vulnerable part that starts to believe you are bad and worthless. It believes the messages that first came from one of those shaming parents – and it carries them throughout life as its “burden of worthlessness.”

Dr. Schwartz explains, “There is a critic who says you’re shit, and there’s this young part that believes it.” Usually, there is then yet another, third part, whose job it is to get away from feeling the shame. Sometimes, when that third part is triggered, a person might resort to extreme behaviours that can bring on more shame – the very thing they wanted to avoid.

For example someone may go get drunk when they feel shame, or act out sexually – basically doing something to get away from that initial feeling. Others may become enraged at somebody, because feeling rage seems powerful, and masks the underlying feeling of being worthless and bad.

“The part that does the rescue from the shame then brings on more shame from the outside world, which fuels the critic. You get this viscous cycle going inside.” That’s how Dr. Schwartz sees shame.


Working with Shame

In therapy, it’s crucial to first work with the inner critic before approaching the parts that feel all the shame. If the inner critic is not first addressed and overcome, then when someone in therapy approaches the things that underlie their sense of shame – the inner critic can be powerfully triggered into inducing a downward spiral into further shame.

We want to do everything we can to avoid this scenario, advises Dr. Schwartz – it is unnecessarily painful and there are far more compassionate ways of working with shame.

Dr. Joan Borysenko, renowned expert in the mind-body connection, suggests one very simple and effective way of addressing the inner critic is through humour – naming the inner critic. As we start to differentiate the voice of inner criticism, giving it a name can help you gain power over it. Then, whenever the inner critic comes up, explains Dr. Borysenko, “we can say, ‘Alright. Get thee behind me, Zelda,’ or whatever your name is.”

There are many other ways of working with shame – a sense of humour certainly helps, but it takes time, compassion and patience to fully heal. Back in the mid ‘80s, Louise Hay, for example, used a simple but powerful meditation when she was working with AIDS patients. It was at a time when much of the world was shaming young men with AIDS, saying “God is punishing you for your sins because you’ve done this thing that’s wrong.”

Louise created a loving space for AIDS patients instead of shaming them. Being with her was a safe place. She ran group events that were attended by gay men, where she would sometimes give a simple meditation as a way of practicing compassion and patience toward oneself. It was a visualisation exercise where you started by seeing yourself as a baby, and holding yourself in your arms –really trying to put yourself into that baby self, with all the love that you would give to this little being. Then, you tucked the baby into your heart.

Next, you’d see yourself as a 5-year-old, and go through the same kind of loving compassionate process before also tucking the little 5-year-old in your heart. Then, when you were 10, and then 15, and then when you were a young adult or whatever age you are now.

Dr. Borysenko comments on how Louise’s meditation gave people an amazing chance to have things come up about themselves at different ages and to feel compassionate toward themselves. It helped with disarming the inner critic, because inner child work is another very important part of dealing with shame.

In future posts I’ll be sharing more ways in which you can dissolve the power structures that hold shame in place and how you can heal from the pain of shame. See you then.



NICABM – National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine
Dr. Richard Schwartz – Internal Family Systems Therapy
Dr. Joan Borysenko – Mind-Body Health Sciences LLC
Artwork by Giorgia Di Vita


Silence, Please: The Regenerative Effects of Peace and Quiet

silence pleaseIn the year 2008, Finland appointed a delegation tasked with creating a national brand. The delegation issued a slick “Country Brand Report” highlighting a host of marketable themes, including Finland’s renowned educational system and vast natural beauty. And one curious theme made the final list too, which they deemed would appeal loudest of all: silence.

The “silence” associated with Finland, was no longer to be thought of as boring and unexciting, urged the delegates, but could be considered a “natural resource,” especially amidst a modern world of loudness and busyness. A world in which some pay out hundreds for expensive noise-canceling headphones; and others are willing to part with thousands for weeklong silent meditation courses.

Recent studies highlight the peculiar power of silence to calm our bodies, turn up the volume on our inner life, and attune our connection to the world. Contrasted with “noise,” a word that comes from a Latin root meaning either queasiness or pain; and the notion of “noise pollution,” a term coined by researchers in the 1960s that pointed at the harmful effects of noisiness on the activity and balance of life.

The word “noise” comes from a Latin root meaning either queasiness or pain.

Noises are received as physical vibrations by the ear where they are converted into electrical signals for the brain. There they first activate the amygdalae, the region of the brain associated with memory formation and emotion, prompting an immediate release of stress hormones like cortisol — people living in consistently loud environments often experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

On the other hand, as one study at Duke University by regenerative biologist, Imke Kirste, showed; two hours of silence per day actually prompted cell development in the region of the brain known as the hippocampus. “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system,” remarked Kirste.

Kirste concluded that neurologists could find a therapeutic use for silence, for instance in the treatment of conditions like dementia and depression that have been associated with decreasing rates of neurogenesis in the hippocampus.

Two hours of silence per day actually prompted cell development in the hippocampus

For decades, scientists have known that the brain’s “background” activity consumes most of its energy. Difficult tasks like pattern recognition or arithmetic, concluded neuroscientists in a 1997 study at Washington University, only slightly increased the brain’s energy consumption. They argued that this “default mode” of brain function had “rather obvious evolutionary significance,” for example in detecting predators, and other “automatic” functions.

However, follow-up research in 2013 by Joseph Moran and colleagues, has shown the default mode is also enlisted in self-reflection. During the time when the brain rests quietly, wrote Moran and colleagues, it integrates external and internal information into “a conscious workspace.” Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, allows us to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where and how we fit in.

“If you want to know yourself you have to be with yourself, and discuss with yourself, be able to talk with yourself,” said Noora Vikman, an ethnomusicologist and consultant for silence to Finland’s delegates. Thoroughly convinced by the power of silence, in 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board released a series of photographs of lone figures in the wilderness, with the caption “Silence, Please.”


The Mind of the Meditator: The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

The Neuroscience of MeditationWhen Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was invited to address the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, a few hundred members petitioned to have the invitation rescinded. They felt a religious leader had no place at a scientific meeting. The invitation stood and the Dalai Lama posed a challenging question to the gathering: What relation could there be between spiritual tradition and modern science?

In fact the Dalai Lama had sparked this dialogue about science and spirituality as early as the 1980s which led to the creation of the Mind & Life Institute, dedicated to studying contemplative science and contemplative neuroscience—the scientific study of the brain of the expert meditator.

Research has started to explain why training the mind to meditate offers so many cognitive and emotional benefits. These benefits have been known for thousands of years by those drawn to such practices, but never backed by scientific research until recently.

This research coincides with further neuroscientific findings that show that the adult brain can still be deeply transformed through experience. For instance when you learn to play a musical instrument your brain undergoes changes whereby certain areas of the brain actually get larger through a process called neuroplasticity. A similar process appears to happen when you learn to meditate.

The cover article in the November 2014 issue of Scientific American, describes how three major forms of meditation from the Buddhist tradition—focussed attention, mindfulness, and loving-kindness—activate and develop corresponding brain areas, which can be observed through the latest advances in neuroimaging. Some of these findings are summarised below.

Focussed Attention and the Neuroscience of ‘Wandering Mind’

The first form of meditation, known as focussed attention, aims to quieten and centre the mind in the present moment while developing the capacity to remain vigilant to distractions. The meditator typically directs attention to one thing such as the in-and-out cycle of breathing. Naturally the mind wanders and the practice is to notice when this happens and restore the object of focus.

Neuroimagery linked with this practice shows that a part of the brain known as the default-mode network (DMN) is activated when concentration is lost and the mind wanders. The DMN is a kind of autopilot that steps in with control when we become distracted. The brain will carry on with the task even if we’re no longer present to what’s happening. That’s a really good thing because in this case the task is breathing!

When we realise we’ve been distracted a different part of the brain, called the salience network, is activated. This functions like a compass needle that triggers an alarm if it strays from an intended direction. The salience network can be trained in meditation practice and is a part of the brain’s cognitive cycles involved in sustaining concentration on one thing.

Finally the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe are engaged in “taking back” attention to the object of focus by detaching it from any distracting stimuli. The prefrontal cortex then continues to retain a high level of activity as the attention remains directed to the object of focus, such as the breath.

Expert meditators with more than 10,000 hours of practice show more activity in these attention-related brain regions compared with beginners. Their brain imagery resembles expert musicians and athletes capable of sustaining a sense of effortless concentration and control during their performances.

Mindfulness and Attentional Blink

The second meditation form studied by researchers, mindfulness, tries to cultivate a less emotionally reactive awareness to emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment to prevent them from spiraling out of control and creating mental distress. The meditator remains open and attentive to any arising experience without focusing on anything specific. This is also sometimes called open-monitoring meditation.

Researchers measured what is known as attentional blink, which is the time the brain takes to ‘reset’ in-between two experiences. Often if the delay between two experiences is less than 300 milliseconds, the second one goes unnoticed. If the delay is greater than 600 milliseconds it is usually detected without difficulty. The reset time is connected with how easily the brain is able to ‘let go’ of one arising experience and be open to the next.

Research showed that mindfulness practice, which cultivates a nonreactive form of sensory awareness, resulted in reduced attentional blink after three months of intensive practice. Meaning that the brain’s capacity to remain open to new experience significantly increased.

Expert meditator’s brain activity, compared to novices, was also shown to diminish in anxiety-related regions such as the amygdala. Anxiety is often a core emotion connected with mental flight and dissociation from experience, it is often an habitual response of trauma survivors. In long-term meditator’s the actual size of the amygdala decreases. This insight may be particularly helpful in dealing with distress and traumatic pain, which may otherwise be feared and repressed from conscious processing.

Loving Kindness and Attunement to Suffering

Finally, another type of practice studied by researchers is known in the Buddhist tradition as compassion and loving kindness and fosters an altruistic perspective toward others. This has proved to be more than just a spiritual exercise with potential benefits for health care workers, teachers and others who run the risk of emotional burnout linked to the distress experienced from deeply opening to another person’s plight.

The practice begins by focusing on an unconditional feeling of benevolence and love for others, accompanied by the silent repetition of a phrase conveying this intent. After a week of practice, novice subjects watched video clips showing suffering people with more positive and benevolent feelings than non-meditators.

Instead of leading to distress and discouragement, the practice reinforced inner balance, strength of mind, and a courageous determination to help those who suffer. This is like the difference between a loving, comforting mother at the side of a sick child versus a mother overwhelmed with anxiety at the sight of her child’s distress. In the latter case the mother may end up with the common experience of burnout, which ultimately won’t do her or her child much good.

A Way to Well-Being

These and many more studies are demonstrating the important place that contemplative and meditative practices may have on brain development and cognitive processes critical for mental and emotional health.

Many therapists now recommend mindfulness meditation to support psychotherapy. Some psychotherapists undergo long-term mindfulness training themselves, integrating this into their practice. They can therefore provide their clients the unique opportunity to experience the majority of the therapy session in mindfulness.

If you’re interested in such an integrative approach to psychotherapy, don’t be afraid to enquire about any mindfulness training your therapist has received and if they integrate this in their practice. Meanwhile, if you’re new to mindfulness and meditation practice and want to try it out yourself, then a great place to get started is Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

And of course feel free to get in touch if you have any questions that I can assist you with or to book a session to see what a mindful approach to psychotherapy is like in practice and how it can help you.

Sadat Malik
Phone: 07710 511 517