Feeling Bad About Feeling Bad: Shame and the Primal Brain
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Rather than piling shame on top of shame, we need to slow down and honestly feel whatever it is we feel.
One of the worst things about feeling bad is feeling bad about feeling bad.
As much as we might try, our emotions are not controllable. They are not clean, separable entities we can put in boxes, label, and shelve. They are a tangled mess in our brains, bodies, and nervous systems. They can be triggered by an immediate event, or arise as an echo of some experience we had years ago. We even have mirror neurons in our brains that help us pick up on the emotions of others—seeing someone cry makes us sad even if we have absolutely no idea why the person is crying. We can feel things that have nothing to do with us! There’s nothing rational about emotions. They just are.
Still, we try to control them. We get frustrated with ourselves for feeling things that make no sense. We try to force ourselves to get over our exes. We tell ourselves a million reasons we have no right to be angry. We try to push ourselves to get through grief faster, which, as many of us know from experience, has absolutely no effect.
Emotions are not the boss of us, either. As long as our rational minds are online, we can still make choices about how to respond to our situations. We can consider how seriously we want to take the feelings that come up. Self-care practices can help us calm down and consider what we want to do with our emotions.
A big problem for our rational minds, however, is shame. Shame activates our primal fight-or-flight reactions, muting our cognitive abilities. You know those moments when you sort of black out and when you come to you’ve eaten an entire package of cookies? That was your primal brain, your older, survival-focused brain areas taking over and reaching for some old survival strategy to make you feel better. If it’s not cookies, it might be booze, cigarettes, lost days streaming Netflix, or denial naps (when you don’t want to deal so you fall asleep instead). Our brains remember our oldest strategies for feeling better and beeline for those. And we do feel better! At least until our quick-release strategies cause negative consequences, which can trigger shame all over again.
It’s not that we don’t know how to do self-care. It’s that shame shuts down our ability to practice self-care. Our primal, survival-oriented brain quiets our more modern, rational prefrontal cortex. We are aware that we’d probably feel better if we took a walk or went to the gym or practiced yoga or called a friend or took a few deep breaths. But shame shuts us down, and six hours later Netflix has paused to ask if we’re still watching, as if to say, “You okay, honey?”
Rather than piling shame on top of shame, then, we need to slow down and honestly feel whatever it is we feel. Most of us were told as kids to stop fearing the monsters under our beds. Women are told to stop being angry, and men are told never to let ‘em see you cry. Even in yoga classes, we are told we should focus on being happy and grateful and that rage and bitterness aren’t “yogic” emotions. The backfire is that as we’re struggling not to feel natural human emotions, we self-sabotage down the slippery slide of shame.
Unlearning our social and individual emotional captivity isn’t easy. But it’s like anything else— a practice. Reminding ourselves that it’s okay to feel whatever we feel—yes, including shame—can help us slow the cycle of feeling bad about feeling bad. And then maybe we can start feeling a little better.