Emotional Exposure: Surfing Toxic Shame

Emotional exposure in action

So from time to time I will post a case illustration depicting the utilization of Integrative Mindful Exposure techniques such as the Emotional Surfing exercise. This particular exercise is from a recent session which might help illustrate the relationship between anxiety and toxic shame. As I indicated in the last post, anxiety may often have at its core not fear as is often assumed, but shame.

This middle age woman, with whom I have been working for a short time came into the office for this particular session appearing quite distressed. She stated that during the past few days she has been experiencing almost unrelenting panic and anxiety.  Her efforts at relaxation, breathing, distraction and exercise were providing only minimal and transient relief. She is currently undergoing training for a new position at a call center and is soon to commence her actual duties under close supervision and scrutiny. This woman has an unfortunate history characterized by physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

To reiterate the Emotional Surfing techniques (see previous posts on this topic) which borrows heavily from eastern mindfulness and behavioral exposure (primarily Implosion Therapy which will be described in a future post), the client is led directly into their avoided feelings. As feelings are mindfully exposed, they are asked to attend to arising thoughts, images, memories and physical sensations and their points of primary origin.

OK, so I asked her to close her eyes and focus on the panic/anxiety.

She described acute physical and emotional pain in her upper abdominal region. As she was helped to focus on this pain I asked for accompanying thoughts.

She stated that “I have to be perfect at work tomorrow”.

I asked her to label that feeling. She stated, “I feel nauseous”. I asked her to focus on the nausea and describe the accompanying emotional feeling. She replied “fear”.

I asked her to focus on “I have to be perfect tomorrow”. I asked her to identify whose voice that really is. She readily yelled out, “That’s my Dad!”.

I asked her to focus on the accompanying feeling.

She said “shame”.

I asked her to describe the shame as a physical substance. She initially described it as a black crusty hard substance that was immensely huge. I asked her to continue focusing on the feeling and the accompanying image. The image quickly turned into black tarry “shit” *(meaning feces).

I asked her to focus on that image and accompanying emotions.

I then asked her for accompanying thoughts.

She responded (crying loudly), “I was supposed to be a boy. They always reminded me of that. I’m sorry but it’s not my fault, it’s not my fault.”

I asked for other thoughts.

Even polar bears appear to question their self worth.

I always blamed myself for not being good enough for them. I carried their shame all these years.

I asked her if she would like to give it back to them.

She stated “Yes!”

I asked her to scoop up all the shit inside of her and bring it to her parents grave site and pour it into their graves. I suggested that she state that “I am returning the shame that you have made me hold for you. This is not mine to bear. I no longer wish to carry it and so I am returning it to you” (this is a variant of a John Bradshaw: Author of “Toxic Shame” and “Homecoming”, exercise).

All this took place in only about 8-10 minutes. Upon opening her eyes there was a dramatic change in her countenance and demeanor. She stated that the panic and anxiety were completely vanished as well as the nausea and stomach pain.

She stated that she felt something dramatically “lift” inside of her. She stated that she now recognizes her anxiety is actually shame. Everything in the world feels like a test that she can only fail since she never felt “good enough” since her parents never made her feel loved.

She was asked to repeat the in session exercise for homework and to keep labeling the experience of shame whenever it arose.

So, that’s how it goes.

Please feel free to provide comments, experiences, questions, or insults, to help make this a more dynamic experience for all.

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8 Comments. Leave new

  • I cannot tell you how helpful this was. I decided to put it into practice a couple of days ago.

    Oddly enough I’m experiencing a lot of anxiety and physical pain as I am writing right now. I need to run this through the process. I don’t know if I can finish sharing with you until I do so. It’s not about sharing my experience it’s about writing it “good enough” without sounding stupid. I apologize. I will stop and work it out because tears are surfacing.
    I’m grateful to catch it and work on healing.

    Thank you.

  • mm
    October 23, 2012 8:08 am

    Cathy: You never have to be concerned about “sounding stupid” or “being good enough” here, nor ever a need to apologize. Of course I recognize that these are all manifestations of shame and I commend you for having the courage to face your shame. You and others here are truly “warriors” in the truest spirit of the word. I will write more about that word at a later time. Best wishes in your healing journey. Please feel free to keep us posted.

  • Ok.Here is my first experience with the emotional surfing.

    I was having a lot of panic/anxiety in connection with finding a healthy weight loss lifestyle way of eating.

    I had tension in my thighs, jaw and across my chest and upper forearms.

    My thoughts were: too much work, can’t do it , takes too much time, I’ll fail anyway, you failed before.

    It was fear and I felt very sad and hopeless.

    Quicksand is what it felt like, too much work, I need someone to help me, I’m not going to make it, there is no way out were the thoughts.
    “You have to be careful” were words that resonated from my parents.

    As I reflected it was interesting that I didn’t have someone to help me to know who I really was growing up. No reflections on my person, on me. I was alone in one sense and I’ve had to spend years, first of all finding that out, then more years wondering how to do it for myself. No cheer leading for me or ada girl, only what was wrong and what not to do.

    I absorbed their shame. Everything felt like a test and still does but that is diminishing quickly.

    They could only do what they knew.

    I have much more peace in this situation. I can’t say that all the frustration with myself for allowing me to gain weight is gone but it is one big step. If I stop to look at where I’m at now I could scream but I never give up.

    I have two more experiences to share with the emotional surfing to follow. I’ll break it up.

    It you have any suggestions with the

  • This experience is what took place before I could write the above.

    Anxiety about writing on this blog.

    I felt pain in my thighs, teeth, chest and upper forearms.

    Thoughts were: I have to sound good/normal, make sense so people won’t think I’m making this up for attention. “Oh you’re fine,others have it worse,that’s all that psychobabble” ( moms words)


    This shame feels like cement boots and hat.

    Thoughts; keep your thoughts to yourself, don’t say anything to embarrass yourself, you need to be careful not to blurt things out.

    I felt “not good enough” a lot. I had no outlet for interesting thoughts/feelings only if I dared do so they were “out there”. I didn’t know what to do with them. Typically I did the very thing they didn’t want me to do (which in hind sight was ME). Therefore feeling worse.

    I mounted the shame upon myself.

    I see they being ACOA had nothing to give me, they didn’t have anything for themselves.

    I would take it all to a dumpster and pitch it. They didn’t ask for what they got or didn’t get and neither did I.

    Now that I’m healthier I choose to give myself the love they weren’t able to and to give it to them as well. By Gods grace.

  • Experience 3

    Anxiety with decision making on reducing stuff. I recently sold a few items to give me more space/peace but now I have to make a lot of “decisions”. UGH

    Tension in the front of my neck,face and upper forearms. FEAR

    What if I get rid of something and then I need it, it will cost me more money to replace it therefore setting myself up for more frustration. ( but then does having it around cause more angst?). Where am I going to put it? What if a better idea comes along after I’ve already organized it? Then it was wasted time.

    Paralysis takes over and avoidance is paramount except that I can’t look at the mess one more time. but, but, etc. Hard to breathe.

    Shame manifests itself as a sticky substance, that if I work on one thing something else will stick to it making it more work. Panic sets in, how? where? to begin, it will follow me. I won’t be free from it.

    Doubts, will it be ok. I couldn’t do anything without a doubt instilled. For crying out loud, it’s insanity. If it falls apart, I did something wrong.
    It appears with all this stuck thinking all my choices are taken away.
    I’m never free since its sticky.

    But I can see none of this is ME, it’s my parents. They have been painstakingly struggling with decisions to this very day!!! As a matter of fact yesterday.

    In working through these exercises it allows me to step out of the arena set up by my parents. I had to live in it and was a sponge absorbing their struggles only to temporarily own them. I can see with clarity that this shame can be removed like the prisoners uniform in “The Fugitive”. It has not been about me.

    My parents are wonderful people and love me without a doubt and unbeknownst to them the gift of shame was shared. I know I have done so with my children. Hopefully to a lesser degree and none it for any of us deliberately for sure.

    I know there is more work to do but I can tell you for sure these are a great beginning and are probably 3 of the ones that have caused me the most pain.

    Thank you so much for the work you are doing with shame. There is hope!!

  • mm
    October 25, 2012 8:10 am

    It is very moving and inspirational to witness the work you have done. I am sure this will serve to galvanize many others in their efforts. Three major things I want to point out about your observations.
    First, it helps to dispel the notion that emotions, even incredibly strong ones are dangerous. They are not. As I state in the book, they can be extremely uncomfortable and inconvenient. But it is only our efforts to avoid or escape from these experiences that provide the possibility of danger.
    It is also readily apparent that by facing and embracing your pain, you have started to develop a deeper sense of compassion toward yourself. Furthermore, you have even begun to express a level of understanding and compassion toward your parents. This form of emotional healing is sometimes misunderstood as looking to blame others for our pain. Nothing can be further from the truth. As we face our pain, compassion and acceptance invariably blossoms. not only toward ourselves but towards others, including our tormentors. That is healing!
    Finally, it is common for those who struggle with shame, to experience weight issues. what i have found, is that as people become better at facing their shame, weight starts to come off. The paradox is that by learning to accept yourself as you are and appear, fat and all, the need to overeat dissipates. Since after all, food is used as a mechanism to dissipate shame. I will blog on this topic at a later time.
    Keep up your courageous efforts and thank you so much for allowing others to witness a small part of your journey.

  • Yes, yes, yes. You hit the nail on the head with this post! I recently returned from The Meadows in Arizona (Pia Mellody’s place) and had an amazing LIFT when I gave back the shame of not having been affirmed, nurtured or protected by my primary caregivers. They may have been damaged too, but I did NOT get what I needed and it ruined my relationships for far too long. I gave the shame back in an intensive one hour long session and am continuing to work to be free of it, but feel so much lighter and more empowered for having gotten free of that black, tarry, icky concoction that stained my soul and was never mine in the first place!

    • mm
      January 23, 2013 8:55 am

      Shame, if left unattended will almost certainly toxify our relationships. I am glad that you had the courage and guidance to face this. It is critical to recognize that it is less important to be free of it as it is to mindfully embrace it when it does arise. We don’t want to get enticed into a control war against shame for to do so will only maintain the cycle of shame. Healing and growth is a lifetime endeavor. Best of luck in your journey and thanks for chiming in!!


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