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Mindful : October 2017
A few years ago I ran a six-month train- ing on managing stress through mind- fulness for social-service workers. These men and women were on the front lines of helping the homeless and people with serious mental-health problems. Suffice it to say, their work was more stressful and intense than most. People often think mindfulness is about peace and relaxation. While these effects can show up, should you be so lucky, it’s also about effort, turning toward that which you’d rather avoid, and, of course, practice. During our first meeting, I attempted to use some levity in describing the deep and rigorous work ahead of us. At one point I nodded to my two co-facilitators, telling the group, “These two are really sweet and accommodating. I’m the slave driver.” The following week, one of the participants, who happened to be a black woman, asked if she could talk to me. Then, speaking softly but firmly, she revealed, “ What you said really upset and hurt me, and I spent the last week processing it with my colleagues at work.” I was startled. “What did I say?” And then I froze. “I’m the slave driver.” The words came flooding back to me, chased by a wave of heat spreading up my body to my face. I felt like throwing up. “How could I have been so thoughtless, so unaware? And I call myself a mindfulness teacher!” In the seconds that it took for the full reali- zation and weight of my mistake to hit me, I felt myself shrink inside and had the desperate urge to hide or just turn and run out the door. If you haven’t recognized it yet, let me intro- duce you to shame, the most painful, cringe- inducing of human emotions. Guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment, close cousins of shame, are often confused with it, but they are not the same thing. When we make a mistake, feel remorse, and want to fix it, that’s guilt. When we feel put down and think it’s undeserved, that’s humil- iation. When we feel foolish in front of others, that’s embarrassment. But when shame hits, we feel naked, exposed, our shameful selves out on display for everyone to see. Instead of feeling regretful for having done something wrong, through shame’s warped Patricia Rockman, MD, is a physician with a focused practice in mental health. She is the Director of Education and Clinical Services for the Centre for Mindfulness Studies and an Associate Professor at the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. lens we see ourselves as wrong, bad, even unwor- thy. Or as researcher and author Brené Brown explains in discussing the difference between shame and guilt: “Guilt is: I’m sorry, I made a mistake. Shame is: I’m sorry, I am a mistake.” Shame’s reason for being All emotions are experienced in the mind and in the body, and for good reason. Science tells us that emotions—desired or disliked—ready us to meet environmental circumstances by activat- ing our nervous, cardiovascular, and musculo- skeletal systems. The “heat” I felt rise to my face when con- fronted about my careless words was the involuntary dilation of blood vessels that, from an evolutionary purpose, would provide a visual clue to others that something is awry. Shame might also be experienced as a heavi- ness in the chest, a hollow sense of dread, or nausea—the body’s way of saying, Uh-oh, some- thing’s wrong here— followed by an accelerated heart rate, sweating, avoidance of eye contact, or a desire to make yourself small, hide, or flee. Brain imaging research reveals increased activity in the frontal (concerned with identity) and temporal (clues us into to others’ feelings) lobes and limbic system (the seat of emotion) when we experience shame. Other studies sug- gest that shame can trigger a systemic inflam- matory response, something associated with conditions including atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, stroke, insulin resistance/Type 2 diabetes, and cognitive decline. The latter led psychology researchers at the University of British Columbia to warn, some- what wanly, “long-term experiences of shame might have the potential to negatively influence health and well-being.” As you’ve surely experienced for yourself, shame is a full-sensory assault, completely taking over how we feel, think, and act. The question is, why? Why does shame feel so threatening? Social science indicates that shame’s primary adaptive function is to stop us from acting against social norms, making sure we behave appropri- ately so we don’t get ostracized or cast out. This is called social self-preservation, and it makes sense: Survival of the species is dependent upon community; we don’t survive long in isolation. Shame also serves the more personal purpose of helping us recognize when we’ve gone against our own values, and can provide the jolt we → In the Hot Seat How shame reveals itself in the body A wave of heat rising up through your body Sweating Nausea or a feeling of imbalance, as if you might fall over Shortening of breath Narrowing of vision Feeling contracted or constricted Averting the gaze A desire to flee, hide, or disappear You might even want to lash out, to deflect the shame over whelming you onto someone else PHOTOGRAPHBYGETTYIMAGES/JONBOYES 54 mindful October 2017