Shame and Trauma: the fight, flight, or freeze overlap

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from relationship.” – Brené Brown

There are three main reactions one can have in a highly traumatizing situation: fight, flight, or freeze. When the brain perceives a life threatening situation our parasympathetic system gets overwhelmed with a survival response to endure whatever peril is in our midst. In these moments we are basically powerless to this neurological response. But what is not as commonly known is that we actually have a very similar psychological fight, flight, or freeze reaction to shame.

Obviously, no one likes feeling shame. It is a mentally crippling thing to have to grapple with and for very good reasons we do everything in our power to both consciously and unconsciously protect ourselves from said pain. This is the very nature of defense mechanisms, which no one – not even your therapist – can psychologically or emotionally survive without.

However, even though theses defenses serve a vital purpose for each individual, they can also be the source of a lot of distress. For example, children who grow up with very little consistency and security can very easily grow up being distrustful of others. They can struggle to allow themselves to get close in deep connection for fear of what being intimate and vulnerable historically represents: pain. It can almost feel like they never grew out of that feeling. Oddly enough, though, while they are protecting themselves, they are actually reinforcing these wounds that instigated this inner conflict in the first place by keeping the idea of being vulnerable and intimate at a distance. The reason for this is because the wounding that happens in relationship, which is where shame manifests, can only be healed in relationship. So while this guardedness makes this individual feel safe, it also contributes to the distress in the long run by never allowing themselves to have the deeply connected relationships that help all of us grow, evolve, and thrive.

In this light, many of our reactions to shame can be put in one of three main categories: fight, flight, or freeze.

Fight: Anger is perhaps the easiest and most apparent symptom of a fight response to shame. If you’ve ever known a pathologically angry person you know exactly what I’m talking about: they tend to be in a relatively bad mood more often than not, ready to argue about something, very intense, and often times even bully-like. Being around them makes you feel nervous, overwhelmed, and ultimately like you want to get away from said person, which is likely what they want on some level.

Flight: Avoidance is the go-to symptom of a flight response to shame. Whether it be out of anxiety or acute stress, these are the people who, much like the above example, are harder to connect with for many good reasons. They are the ones who try desperately to avoid any sort of intimacy or vulnerable moment with others by keeping many interactions at some surface level because that feels safest.

Freeze: Catatonic depression and relentless boredom are two examples of a freeze response to shame. People who exhibit a freeze response tend to get supremely overwhelmed with a variety of feelings and/or thoughts that they have hardly any energy or motivation to do anything. Hence why they relationally freeze in a way.

It can be really trying to have long term meaningful connections with people struggling with shame because there is a constant push-pull affect – a sort of ‘come close, but stay away’ feeling because it makes them feel at least somewhat in control when they more often that not don’t feel very in control of their lives, emotions, moods, etc. What is so hard in these moment is that you and others care about the person, see them really struggling in some capacity, want to help them, but ultimately don’t know what to do. That’s largely because to the person struggling with shame, you are part of the problem simply by being someone in their life who can abandon them and ultimately hurt them. Gently encouraging this person to get the help they need by seeing a therapist can be of monumental help because it allows the ashamed to talk to a completely neutral person in a safe space devoid of expectations where they are completely in control of the relationship and can simply be.

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