Looks That Imply Wrongness

Have you ever had someone else give you a look that caused you to recoil with a shame reaction? Maybe the look implied that you’d done something wrong or that you hadn’t done something well enough. Maybe it brought up a fear inside of you around feeling hurt or rejected. Or it sparked a need to defend yourself and it was really uncomfortable. Yet, your voice just couldn’t be heard. 

Maybe when this happened, you felt invisible or they obviously didn’t even know you. At the same time, even if they are having expectations of you, I’m wondering if you are needing some shared reality around what it’s like to receive projections from others. I’m guessing you may be needing your own intentions to be acknowledged and seen for what they truly are. 

When someone gives us a look, especially if it is one of disgust, it’s going to cause that instantaneous response in our nervous system. Our neck and our shoulders will actually lose muscle tone and we go into a collapse. The dorsal vagal is activated and we go into immobilization. When we move from social engagement, the highest ventral vagal, which enables how we can talk and experience ease with our facial expressions. When we slip down to our sympathetic nervous system we are activated and ready to fight or run. If something happens where fighting or running doesn’t seem possible, that’s when we slip down into the unmyelinated dorsal vagal nerve. Everything moves super slow there. That’s because our body is releasing a neurochemical to eliminate most of the pain that we feel. Because it’s a painful reaction to fall into shame. 

If we were in our sympathetic nervous system and someone shot us a look of disgust, we’d probably want to fight with them. Yet, I want to hold a lot of space for what it’s like when others project their expectations upon you. Maybe with just a look. 

What if it’s possible for you to instead, be able to recognize those projections for what they truly are, and not take it personally. To have insight into recognizing the patterns this other person is running in their system. 

Another things that’s possible is you can develop empathy buddy relationships, so that when you have a shame reaction or even anger, whatever the emotion may be that comes up for you, you can call them up and get some empathy for that. That is my favorite strategy to use. When we get that kind of support as needed consistently, we start growing the fibers of attachment between our prefrontal cortex and our limbic system, specifically the amygdala, the emotional alarm system. 

That supports us to grow both our window of tolerance, being able to stay available and tolerate emotions that used to be more uncomfortable, as well as you can grow your window of welcome where you can stay engaged and in your ventral vagal social engagement system. Even in the face of these kinds of projections that others may have. Because, as you grow those fibers of “I make sense” neurons, you step more fully into who you truly are, instead of stuck in the fear of who you are not. 

I’d like to offer you a little something, when you notice that you are having a shame reaction, what you can do is pay attention to the sensations in your body. Maybe your cheeks get tingly and hot. Pay attention to the sensations, and also make a clear observation around what the trigger was. It’s like taking a snapshot of what happened, or what you heard, or what you said. You can then use that with your empathy buddy, name the observation and then notice what happens in your body. As you practice this, with a friend or trusted others, identify the beauty of the need underlying that reaction. 

Once you’ve received some empathy support and you notice a shift in your body, come back to the observation and notice how your body responds the next time. There will be a difference, and you may need to get several rounds of empathy, depending on how strong the reaction was that you had.


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