Shame, implicit memory and Cortisol

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Firstly, I want to thank my son for fixing the ‘shame’ logo above – I am now having it made into cards, but will keep my original hand-drawn, wonky one on the blog because it is where I started.

I have just listened again to Daniela Sieff’s brilliant talk about trauma – I went to the original lecture at the RSA – and I highly recommend it to anyone who has any interest in this subject. Daniela describes our reaction to trauma as being in three parts – fear, dissociation and shame – and not surprisingly, it is the last one that most concerns me here.

As Daniela says, once we experience shame in the early, deep, life-altering sense that I mean it (see post), we see the world through a lens that is distorted by this experience, and our life is defined by it until such time as we become aware of this distortion, and begin to sort it out. The experiences that have caused us to feel this way – neglect, abuse, abandonment, lack of love – have slipped quietly into our implicit memory (the kind of memory that we use when we ride a bike, or drive a car), and we are not even aware that they are there, but they inform our every waking moment. They cause our view of the world to become misshapen, as if we are looking at life through a bendy piece of glass, and we genuinely believe that this view of ourselves and our world is accurate – we are bad, the world is dangerous, people do hate us, we are ugly or unloveable, we are worthless, stupid, useless or pathetic.


Rational explanations do nothing to change these perceptions, because implicit memory resides in the emotional parts of our brains, not in the logical parts. Feelings of core shame are implanted in our brains long before we have the ability to think rationally, or talk, at a time in our development when our world is dominated by our emotions and sensations. If we feel ugly or unloveable, someone telling us that we are beautiful, and that they love us very much, does little to change how we feel, and will bounce of us as if we were coated in Teflon – hence the need for treatment and life experiences involving our feelings and our bodies. As I’ve said before, looking in the mirror and telling ourselves that we are beautiful ten times every morning will do nothing to change the way we actually feel!


As I was explaining the power of implicit memory to a friend just now – she was wondering what she could do to change the negative way in which she views anything associated with education – I suddenly realised how hard it would be to ‘unlearn’ being able to ride a bike, or drive a car! Pursuing that thought a bit further, and applying it to her difficulty, having suddenly become aware of the reasons for her inaccurate perceptions (an exceptionally harsh and abusive primary school environment), she can now slowly begin to use her conscious mind to change them. What is needed is not so much to ‘unlearn’ it, but to learn it in a different way – teachers are not frightening. It is ok to make mistakes in class. No one will hit me if I get something wrong. I am not stupid. That was then – this is now.

This is re-wiring the brain (see previous post) – letting go of the ‘motorway’ of ‘I am stupid’ or ‘I will get hit with a ruler if I make a mistake’, and slowly learning to take the ‘B road’ of ‘I can do this – I am not stupid’, ‘No one is going to hurt me’. My friend can now use her conscious mind to help herself, so that very slowly, over weeks and months (and maybe longer, as she is well into adulthood, and has felt this way for so long), she can change the perceptions buried in her implicit memory. By being extremely brave, and by making a conscious effort to do things differently – speaking up in her training group, talking about herself in front of her peers – and getting appropriate (rather than punitive) reactions from those around her (it is, after all, a Person-centred psychotherapy training group, so her peers are likely to provide her with a safe environment in which to make these changes), my friend will be able to re-wire her brain, so that eventually, what becomes stored in her implicit memory is a positive view of the learning process, rather than the negative one that she has lived with for so long.



For the scientists amongst you!

This brings me to the role of cortisol, a hormone whose main function is to restore homeostasis after stress. It is now known that cortisol production is increased in shame, which makes perfect sense, since being in a chronic state of core shame is very stressful to say the least! Cortisol levels are also elevated when we are operating in ‘flight or flight’ mode, as those of us who are traumatised so often are – another form of stress. Incidentally, cortisol levels are also increased by sleep deprivation, and the consumption of alcohol and caffeine – ironic, given that those of us who suffer from acute stress often lack sleep, and use caffeine and alcohol to manage the way we feel!

Consistently elevated levels of cortisol lower our immune response, leaving us vulnerable to infection, and cause numerous other health problems, such as inflammatory diseases, problems with thyroid function, and increased abdominal fat production. They also affect our mental health, and those of us with high levels of cortisol flooding our brains are more inclined towards irritability (we tend to overreact, and are too quick to get angry), depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and most particularly, memory and concentration problems. There is also some evidence that constantly high levels of cortisol affect its own production – that the body is confused into thinking that it needs to produce more, and thus it is flooded with even more cortisol.

I have struggled to find an appropriate piece of research connecting shame with cortisol, as many of them focus on experiences of shame in the context of failure to complete a task (which is not the same as core shame, although it may well elicit a similar endocrinological response, albeit more briefly), but I have come up with this short explanation of a piece of research on the subject. For those of you who would like to understand the role of cortisol better, I have found this piece, which describes the symptoms of high cortisol in great detail, and this piece – a serious, but very readable biochemical explanation. As the conclusion of this last one makes clear, the good news is that cortisol levels reduce in response to changes in our lives – as we begin to deal with our shame, and the fear that is causing us to live in a state of ‘fight or flight’, our cortisol levels will reduce, and our day-to-day lives will slowly begin to improve.


Thanks to Colette Bonar and Twitter for this one

Recovery (a very big and scary word), is a sort of circular process – we get past steps one and two above, and arrive at the third step, where we decide to begin to deal with our shame (probably the biggest step of all). We make a promise to ourselves to try, and we take a few tentative steps. Much to our surprise, as the cortisol level comes down a little, we feel a little less awful about ourselves, we sleep a little better perhaps, we begin to value ourselves a tiny bit more. We may eat something that is good for us for the first time, we cut down slightly on our smoking, drinking or drug use perhaps, and slowly, slowly (I can’t stress this too much), things begin to change for the better. We will have days when we appear to go backwards – someone says something to us that hurts, and we slip back to our default setting: we really are bad, useless, and pathetic. This is normal, and we just have to pick ourselves up and keep going.

Back to Resources

There is one resource that is more important than any other, the one thing that I believe makes the biggest difference to all of us – the thing that we didn’t have at the beginning, and that caused us to carry core shame in the first place: the unconditional love, respect and acceptance of another human being. For a young person, this would ideally be an adult, but it doesn’t always work out that way, and I know many young people who have had to soldier on with very little support in the adult world at all. For a young person, this would also ideally be a parent, or parent figure, who can be available for the young person 24/7, but again, this isn’t always possible, and many young people survive with support from a teacher, therapist, or other professional who comes into their lives. For an older person, a partner, sibling or close friend might be able to play this role successfully – again, I believe that it is important for them to be available as much as possible, as it is this constant, reliable, trustworthy, loving presence that makes all the difference.

A brilliant infographic from Emma Seppala on the importance of social connection


As you can see, we all need to connect to others in order to thrive, but those of us who are struggling with core shame are particularly in need of healthy, caring, ongoing relationships, and this is what the mental health services find so difficult to provide, and why treatment so often fails. The system becomes a revolving door through which we find ourselves passing time and time again, in the vain hope that someone will finally be able to help us.

Thus as Emma says at the end, the first step for those of us struggling with core shame, and yet the hardest for us to do, is to learn to reach out to others………

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