CNM 020: Mine Your “Shame Core” – with Dr. Dean Robb

Listen via Stitcher

Today we’re back for part 3 of a 4-part series with recovery coach Dr. Dean Robb of Next Stage Recovery. In our last episode with Dr. Robb, we talked about hitting a “new bottom”. Now we’re moving chronologically into what happens after one hits that new bottom, and that is that hopefully he or she will be ready and willing to do what Dr. Robb calls “mining your shame core”. He says that the only way to get back to your true, authentic self is to go through this core of shame. During this part of recovery, you’ll be confronting whatever dysfunction, trauma, or even abuse you’ve endured, and it can be a painful process.

Question: First, can you refresh our memories and tell us what you mean by the term “shame core”?

When I use that term, it’s a shorthand way for me to talk about the traumatic wounds that are deeply buried inside, in the unconscious of people who grew up in families or living situations that were dysfunctional, abusive, or traumatic. To some extent, all of us have a core of shame even if we didn’t grow up in such difficult circumstances. But people who grew up in very painful circumstances especially have that.

If you grew up in a dysfunctional family – and I keep referring to not just dysfunction, but also abuse and trauma which are hitting at different levels of severity – you were probably told hundreds if not thousands of times, like me, that you were stupid, an idiot, good for nothing, you’ll never amount to anything. My father used to tell me many times, “ you are robbing me of my retirement.” Meaning, why am I wasting my money on you? The message comes through loud and clear to little children that way down deep, “I am worthless. I am totally without merit or worth. I do not deserve to live. I’ll never amount to anything. I’ll never be happy. And not only that, but I don’t deserve it.” That message is shame.

Shame and guilt are two different things. Guilt is something that you develop related to things you’ve done. (i.e. I hurt somebody and feel guilty about that.) Shame is different. Shame is not about something you’ve done. Shame is about your identity, who you are as a person, and if you believe way down deep that you are worthless, that you are utterly without merit, that you do not deserve love or good things, then you have shame.

If you grew up in the type of family I’ve been talking about, then you have a load of shame. And the problem is that the vast majority of it is unconscious. The reason is that it’s so excruciatingly painful to feel, that little children are unable to feel it without disintegrating psychologically. So they “split it off” so to speak, and push it away out of their conscious mind, and way down deep into their heart and soul. It’s like a cancer way down deep in the unconscious mind, and the problem is that, in my opinion (and I’m alone in this), that kind of toxic shame is at the core of addiction and it is at the core of codependency.

Addiction is an attempt to medicate; it’s self medication. And the medication is medicating the pain that is way down deep related to that shame, hurt and trauma. Codependency is a way to try to get people to love you, but that behavior is coming out of shame. And so to be healed and get rid of that addiction on a long-term basis, and to heal your codependency and other dysfunctional issues that are sabotaging your life, you need to get down into and excavate that core of shame. You need to tap it, lance it like a boil, and bring it out into the open, where it can pour out and be dissipated over time. Now, that sounds painful, and it is, but the severity of the pain depends on the severity of the trauma. If you weren’t traumatized all that much, you may not have all that much shame, but if you were then you have a lot, and so that’s why it needs to be excavated.

And there’s another reason – below that shame, there’s even another level that’s deeper than that, and that’s your True Self, your God-given identity that is loving and pure and good. In order to access that inner, authentic, true self, you need to first go through that core of shame. Unfortunately, you can’t bypass it. The only way to that inner true self is to go through the shame, the pain, and the trauma.

Question: The biggest question burning in my mind is – I can see the need to mine it, but how do you actually do that? Is there some process for mining this shame core?

Well, there’s a lot of different ways actually, and I’ll talk about a few of them. I can’t give you an exact formula, but I can tell you that if something happens in your life as an adult that sends you into what’s called a “shame spiral” (that is, you go down and down into a very dark place, feeling like your life is over, like you are worthless, like nothing good will ever happen to you) guess what – you are in the shame core. You may not know it, but that’s what’s going on. Something in your life has touched on the shame and caused it to come up to the surface.

Unfortunately, our natural inclination when that happens is to run and hide, to isolate, get in bed, pull the covers up over our heads and hide. I understand that; I used to do it. The problem is, this doesn’t resolve it. The way to resolve it is to talk about it with someone that you trust, someone who is safe; someone who can listen to you, hear you, and accept what you are saying without judgment, and who will love you regardless of what is coming out of your mouth. That is probably the most important thing that one can do in my estimation – to watch when they’re triggered and then process it instead of hiding, which is our natural inclination.

Another way is to pay attention to your dreams. I believe that our dreams are instances of our unconscious talking to us and trying to get us to listen. All kinds of things come to us through dreams, so I’m not saying that your dreams are automatically about shame, but sometimes they are. I am a big fan of paying attention to your dreams and trying to figure out what they mean, and again, often that means talking with somebody else.

Another thing you could do is keep a journal of what you’re feeling and thinking, and examining when shame comes out, or what looks and appears like shame – that is to say it’s dark and ugly. Another way of dealing with it is starting to “remember”. The longer I’m in recovery, the more I start remembering what happened to me. This is especially true when I’m in contact with a safe, trusted advisor, whether that be a sponsor, a close friend, a non-judgmental clerical person, a therapist, or a recovery coach talking about what happened way back when. The interesting thing about the word “remember” can be thought of as “RE-MEMBER”. Remember when I talked about being unable to process the extremely painful things as a child? What we did was split it off and push it down into our unconscious, and as a result of that, we are not integrated persons. We are fragmented, broken apart, non-integrated persons. And there are huge chunks of us that are laying around in our unconscious, split off into a million pieces. I remember when I came into recovery, and I told somebody I felt like I was shattered into a million pieces – that was actually true. Those pieces were buried in my unconscious and most of them had a core of shame attached to them. Remembering is a way of “re-membering”, that is bringing all of our pieces back together and re-integrating them. That’s how we become whole, complete, healed human beings, through “re-membering”. Does that help?

Question: Yes, that helps. When you talk about sitting down and talking about it with someone, is there a distinction between ruminating in it, and actually processing through it in a healthy way? And, does this have to be done with a professional, or can this be done simply with friends or acquaintances that you trust?

Let me talk about the rumination piece first. Yes, there is definitely a difference between ruminating and processing. Ruminating, which is something I’m very familiar with, is related to being isolated. It is something one usually does by oneself and it consists of going over something again and again, but in your head, and not completing the cycle. It’s kind of like re-living and re-traumatizing. That’s really different than processing because you’re not really getting it out. And my belief is that the way to move past rumination is to stop isolating and open it up into conversation with another person. Or if nobody else is available, in a kind of conversation through journaling, writing it all out on paper where it stops moving along the rabbit trail in your mind, and it gets out into a linear, objective fashion on paper where you can look at it and let out the emotion attached to it. This is really the key – to feel and express the emotion that’s attached to it. When you’re ruminating, you’re not really letting the emotion out.

Regarding the other piece about the professionalism of the person to whom you’re talking, I can say this… It depends heavily but not exclusively on how severe the trauma was. There are some people I’m very close with that grew up in dysfunctional families and do have some shame, but they weren’t traumatized by their parents in the same way that I was. These people have been able to work it through just by talking about it with a safe friend or sponsor. Someone who’s in the middle might want to consult a skilled recovery coach. For someone who’s undergone severe trauma, I would strongly recommend finding a trained, certified psychotherapist, especially one who’s skilled in dealing with child-hood trauma and what’s now being called “complex PTSD”, which is a new classification that’s been emerging over the last five years or so. What it really means is extensive deep trauma over a long period of time.

It also depends on how skilled the person is (not the coach, but the person with the shame). I know a man who is very traumatized, but he’s been working with me and doing extremely well, and I think it’s because he’s very articulate. He’s been able to put his thoughts and feelings into words in an extraordinary way, and he’s also incredibly dedicated to recovery and to his process. So, there’s a lot of variables in there and I hope that I answered your question.

Question: A follow up question to that – from time to time people tell me they’ve been seeing one or even multiple therapists for a number of years and yet they still feel like they’re having major issues. They wonder what they should do and where they should go next. I wonder what you would say to someone who has said that.

That’s a big one. I would want to know something first. I would want to know how long that person has been in recovery. The reason I say that is that the unconscious will not present something to you unless it knows you are ready to deal with it. That is why, in my opinion, these issues don’t tend to surface until one has been in recovery for several years. For me it came up after two years, and that’s pretty unusual, that’s because I was severely traumatized. But for many it could be five years, ten, fifteen or even more. The other side of the coin is the skill of the therapist. If this person has been in recovery for, say, fifteen year, and they’re seeing a therapist for five or six years and it’s not coming out, it may be time to look for another therapist. There are a lot of therapists out there, but it seems that there aren’t as many as one would think that have specialized in childhood of origin trauma.

Question: A lot of folks who listen to the podcast are looking for recovery from codependency, or helping others recover. So the “how to” is really one of the most interesting parts for the audience. You talked about several tactics a little earlier, but what is they key to really getting through the shame? It seems to me a strong indicator of success is that someone moves toward the discomfort and takes the bull by the horns, being motivated to work through it. But what else would you say about how to get through it?

Number one, don’t expect to get through it in a few days, weeks, or even months. It has to be mined out piece-meal. And I think there’s a good reason for that; I think that if all the shame came up at once, many of us that were severely damaged would probably have a psychotic breakdown that would be very serious. So like I said, the unconscious protects us and doesn’t let that happen. What you said is right, it’s a decision. It’s saying, “I’m tired of running from this.” It’s like that scene from Indiana Jones with the huge rock rolling down toward him. That, to me, is an image of the person in recovery who’s doing everything they can in recovery to stay one step ahead of that pain that’s rolling up behind them. You have to stop and face that rolling ball because it’s going to hit you, the only question is “when?” And if you turn around and take the bull by the horns and get support, you will make it through. You will feel some painful feelings; no doubt about that. But guess what? They are just feelings and you can get through them. So there is a decisional piece of this, willingness is the key.

Second is to experiment. Try these different routes that I’ve talked about. An artist might want to paint pictures of their emotions as they are coming out. The idea is to express them, to get them out and then put them in words. What’s we’re doing through this process is making the unconscious conscious, and getting it into words, expressing it, letting it out, feeling it, and then one can move passed it and put it in the past. There’s a quote that I love from Carl Young,

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it ‘fate’.

What he’s saying is that these deeply ingrained unconscious behaviors, beliefs, thoughts feelings, and attitudes are actually driving our behavior and the way we approach life, but we’re not aware of it, so that bad things seem to be happening to us (that’s the fate part). It’s like you feel “fated” to have this terrible, painful life, but we’re unaware that we’re actually creating that life for ourselves. We’re doing it unconsciously because we’re entirely unaware of what we’re going. That’s why making the unconscious conscious is so critical, because until you do it, that stuff will rule your life and you will not get out of the dysfunction and pain. But if you do turn, face it, and process it, and make that stuff conscious, you can move passed the dysfunction and start to tap into the deep, true, inner self that I call the “inner gold” and begin to have a great life.

Question: Let’s say someone sat down with you in your practice and wanted help mining their shame core. How would you approach them? What are the first things you would ask of them right off the bat?

First, I would probably want to talk with them, oddly enough, about what they want out of life, and if they’ve ever given any thought to seeing past their current pain and difficulty and tried to envision (at least on a preliminary basis) what kind of vision they’d like to have for their life. We would begin the early stages of concretizing that into goals that one could work toward over time. The reason I say that is I think we need to work our recovery in two parallel streams; one stream is concrete action moving us toward what we really want in life, and the other stream is working on these issues that sabotage our ability to get that stuff. I don’t think people should wait to work on their life until they’re done processing everything because that would mean putting your life on hold for a year to five or six years.

Paradoxically, I’d like to get them started on thinking about a great life and what it would take to get there. And then I would want to get to know the person in terms of where they come from and their life history. Now, I’m not a therapist, so I want to make it clear that I’m not going to act as one. The reason I want to get to know somebody is to get a sense of how severe that wounding is. If it’s severe, I’ll still work with someone, but I’d also recommend they see a psychotherapist because there’s some really volatile, painful stuff down there that I’m unable to support you with; you would need a trained therapist. If the person is not in that kind of situation, then I would want to get to know them and how they like to work. Some people like to talk or write. Some people like working with their dreams or art. Some like working with all of the above. Then we would develop a plan to move forward.

We could talk about the issues for half the session, then work on your goals for the other half. But we would need to evaluate what channels are most effective for channeling out that shame and the dysfunction, and then developing a concrete plan to start turning on those channels, and do that in parallel with working on their life.

Question: This has been a thorough discussion about the shame core and we appreciate that. Before we wrap up here, I want to give you the floor again in case there’s anything else you want to add to this discussion about the process of mining the shame core.

Yes. You can do it. I know a lot of people in recovery who have turned, face it, come out the other side or are coming out, and are putting together a new life. It amounts to a kind of resurrection of the self. That is to say, having a new life and a new you arise out of the ashes and flames of an old life that didn’t work. And you can walk through the fire and shame, and you can find the means to do that. You can find the channels to access it, and you can find the supports that you need to get you where you need to go. The only thing you need is willingness, courage, patience, and persistence. And I would applaud you in doing that, and I would love to help you do that.

What do YOU think? Have you hit your shame core, or know someone in this difficult stage? What help do you need, or advice do you want to offer? Comment below.

  1. Dear Brian

    In reading the above about mining your shame i found this piece of information highly informative aswell as very knowledgable for the readers from the perspective of a psychotherapist and a co- dependent.

    I fully agree, the core shame and unconscious behaviours deriving from this shame can be very powerful in determining an individuals choices and responses.

    I am in recovery and have been for the past 7 years, this is not only vital for me as a professional to identify my core triggers of shame in order to work ethicaly with clients but for me to be authentic as an individual and make better conscious choices in life.

    I look forward to reading your emails and being able to relate to the topic.

    Best wishes


  2. Loved loved love this! This is exactly where I am in my journey towards better health…So right on! Thank you thank you. Cathy