Shame ignites your primal lizard brain

There’s a good reason why you might “become someone else” when flying into a shame-based rage. You almost are someone else – the primal parts of your brain are being activated. Doesn’t this explain so much? 

We’ve all had those moments where we react in some overblown way, lash out physically, or say something stupid that we don’t really mean.

And then feel embarrassed to hell about it shortly afterwards.

“I don’t know what came over me”.

“I wasn’t acting myself – I don’t know what happened”.

“That isn’t me – that’s not who I am”.

“I’m not that kind of person”.

“Something took over – it was like I couldn’t control myself”.

Sincere apologies.

I call them “cringe-moments”, which normally come back to visit whilst I’m having a shower. My mind wanders onto recent memories, and does a great job of finding the one that feels the most awkward and embarrassing.

Shit, why did I say that? 

It could be something destructive like those moments in an argument where I feel like I lost control, or smaller moments like meeting someone new and having to ask for their name again by the end of the conversation.

“Sorry, what was your name again? I’m so ignorant and self-centered that I can’t remember

In those moments, we feel out of control.

Our unconscious lizard brains are running the show for us.

We become like spectators, watching from a distance as the situation unfolds, with no real time to think, plan, process information properly or rationalise.

It all just happens.

Its like watching someone else trapped in the moment, behaving and saying things that we wouldn’t normally say, we’ve been hijacked by an autopilot who apparently doesn’t really know who we are.

Except its us who don’t really know ourselves – because these moments where we respond automatically from our lizard brains are of course still us. Unfortunately, those moments often get immediately repressed and denied by our conscious minds once we’re back in the driver’s seat.

There’s a good reason for it – studies have shown that when you’re in a high state of shame based anxiety, the logical bits of your brain become inhibited.

The bits that give you higher-level functioning, allowing you to reason logically, be rational, think ahead, strategise.

You’re left with the emotional, primal, automatic lizard brain – the ancient bit of the brain inherited from our distant ancestry.

Lets have a look at what happens in those moments, see how many you can identify with:

Narrowing of attention

Your awareness gets narrowed down, focusing only on a few things. Normally this might be the shame triggers, the face of who you’re talking to or arguing with.

Selective awareness

Because your attention is focused, things on the outside periphery fall into an awareness blind spot. You aren’t aware of lots of obvious things that you would normally be aware of – including a persons history, what they really mean to you, things you might have done to cause the situation, etc.

Access to that lizard brain aggression and energy

Suddenly you find yourself wanting to shout louder, thrash out, maybe even threaten with violence. My dad starts pointing in a ridiculously aggressive manner when he’s in this zone.

Intent to hurt

Feelings of shame create a tendency to criticise and belittle anyway. When its intense, that tendency can increase to wanting to hurt, both physically and emotionally. When in that zone, people can say the cruelest, most horrible things to each other, which they wouldn’t dream of saying when using their normal brain functions!

The vicious circle gets in full swing

If two people are using their shame driven lizard brains,  then the vicious circle starts to spin. Hurtful, aggressive, narrow-minded communication becomes a shame trigger for the other person, who’s lizard brain then throws back similar shame-causing energy, and so on.

Also, take a look at the section about relationships on the “Shame creates defensiveness” page, because its relevant to these moments.

Fuzzy memory afterwards

You might not be able to remember exactly what was said or what happened afterwards. Just little bits. If you watched back a proper recording, you’d probably be shocked, devastated

A small example

Recently, my neighbour from across the road dropped by to deliver a parcel he’d signed for whilst I was out. I moved in half a year ago, but still hadn’t met this couple yet. I’d been meaning to since moving in, but never took the opportunity – always thinking I might be intruding (really, my feelings of shame were probably distracting me, because the longer it went on, the more shameful I felt for not going to say hello).

So we stood in my doorway, both awkwardly nervous, silently acknowledging that its bad we haven’t met properly yet.

My shame kicked in.

I felt not good enough for being 34 but still living alone (relationship difficulties), not having kids, not having been across to say hello yet, not feeling prepared for the sudden knock. I know it sounds ridiculous, but these situations often are.

So I rambled. Explained stupid, rambly things about my girlfriend being in America, how fast time has gone since moving in (gah, so cringeworthily cliched). I didn’t think to ask many questions of him because I was too busy trying to “prove myself” and cover up the shame triggers.

I was on autopilot.

By the end of the conversation, we’d both forgot each others names and had to introduce ourselves again. Embarrassing. 

Afterwards, although happy I’d finally met my neighbour, I felt like I had to play back through the memory of what just happened, as if it was some old fuzzy VHS tape in my brain. In a way it was, a recording from the “primal lizard brain” of my mind, sent to the cortical structures for review.

So I watched through, thinking “urgh, why didn’t you just stop talking about that there? You could have asked about his wife at that point? Where they lived before? Urgh, why did you mention that?” and so on.

A bigger example would some heated relationship rows.

In those moments, I’m ashamed to say that I have reached moments where I’m shouting, sometimes saying cruel things, and desperately trying to protect myself from shameful feelings of not being good enough as a boyfriend.

In those moments, awareness does narrow – I’m completely oblivious to her feelings of shame being triggered and battled with. All the awesome things she might have done, all the good times. I’m focusing on the very last thing that was said, and using all my automatic might to discredit it, quash it, bulldoze over it regardless of how it might make her feel. With no sense of the overall context, what might have been meant rather than said.

I’m right up close to the energy of the moment, there’s no taking a back step, breathing, and looking at what’s going on from a distance to see what’s really driving the argument.

Since being more aware of shame mechanisms, we both have far more tactics these days to prevent the vicious circles from spinning. Recognising early when someone is being shame triggered, and consciously interrupting the moment to take a step back, or return to it once the emotions have settled a bit.

It makes perfect sense, evolution-wise

The primal areas of the brain which get triggered with a shame attack are the same mechanisms normally associated with the fight or flight response, caused by fear.

Normally when fear is invoked, the situation calls for it – aggression is needed, as well as automaticity and speed.

When there’s a bear about to attack, or a boulder heading your way – you would want to not have to think too much about it. RUN!

In those times, the primal brain was far more relevant to survival – real threats were everywhere.

As society evolved, feelings of shame evolved too.

Shameful feelings would hold back the less contributing members of the society, the ones who weren’t good enough, forcing them to be withdrawn. The vicious circle of shame would lead to disconnect, low self-expectations and poor self-worth.

This would would then reduce the chances of procreating – allowing the less shameful to have the upper hand and pass on their genes.

So whilst those feeling shame might have less chance of passing on their genes – the overall ability to feel shame would have evolved within everyone as a protective mechanism of the specie.

At this point, its worth mentioning the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is about remorse for actions you’ve done, whilst shame is about something you are.

So whilst guilt as an emotion can be used more productively to correct behaviours, and put someone on a better path, shame is more a long term feeling of not being good enough, and not feeling worthy of connection or belonging.

But as society has grown, the effects of shame (using shaming behaviour on others, criticism, mocking) create huge vicious circles, and whole segments of society (education, career promotion, advertising, beauty industry) use shame as a core mechanism.

So real, immediate, physical fear has gradually reduced.

But at the same time, imagined, psychological fear – feelings of shame – has increased.

To genuinely epidemic levels!

Its not only the deepest, most destructive and disabling of fears but also one which can be triggered in the most seemingly trivial of situations or conversations.

But the same fear mechanisms kick in – the primal lizard brain of automatic response, and impulsive, emotionally driven action.

Except now, we aren’t running from predators or rival tribes.

We’re in the middle of a conversation with our loved ones.

Our families.

Our friends, colleagues and neighbours.

Strangers, who pull out in their cars at a junction forcing us to brake, making us feel disrespected and not good enough.  Cue lizard brain, cue road rage.

Next time it happens, see it differently

Next time you see someone over-react, shout, get angry, or behave in a way which they normally wouldn’t – look at it a different way.

See them as being shame triggered – desperately protecting themselves from the imagined pain of feelings of shame.

The best thing you could do would be to help alleviate the shame first – then rationally discuss whatever the disagreement is about. Although I fully appreciate its easier said than done, depending on the context and how well you know the person.

At the very least, just take a step back yourself and be aware of what the mechanisms are, rather than getting caught up and allowing your own shame triggers to be triggered too.

Share your story

Do you recognise moments in yourself where your primal, lizard emotional brain kicks in? What happened? Maybe you’ve been on the other end of it. Tell me about it!

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