The ACE Study and Shame

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study helped us to understand the significance of shame and how it affects our health.

How did the ACE Study come about?

In the 1990s, the healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente recruited Dr. Vincent Felitti in San Diego to help them to uncover why they were experiencing an epidemic of obesity.

It was found that 55% of the people in the clinic who were experiencing severe obesity had experienced childhood sexual abuse. The excess weight served a positive protective factor for the people that we are unable to see. The study was then expanded to look at the correlation between other types of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and adverse situations in adulthood.

This study was initially conducted with 286 people. To make these findings into an epidemiological study, questionnaires were handed to each person who came into Kaiser Permanente (akin to a visit to your GP). In total over 17,000 people took part in the study.

ACEs studiesPatients were asked to complete two questionnaires. The first questionnaire asked them to say whether they experienced each of 10 categories of childhood adversity, such as neglect, violence between parents and substance abuse in parents. They were also asked to select which conditions they were now experiencing in adulthood, such as addiction, depression, diabetes, smoking, heart disease, stroke and suicide attempts.

The patients were given the time to complete the questionnaires. When they subsequently saw their doctor or nurse practitioner, the practitioner would say, “I notice that you experienced x when you were a child. I am so sorry that happened to you. You should not have had to go through that. Would you like to talk about it?” In response, 60% of people chose to talk about it and explore how it had affected them in adult life and 40% declined.

The really interesting point is that by asking these questions, there was a 35% decrease in outpatient visits and an 11% decrease in hospital admissions. Symptoms of depression decreased significantly in the patients who were listened to with compassion. This amounted to savings of $billions in healthcare costs!

So what was happening?

shame and healthWe know that confession has been used as a means to bring relief to people’s circumstances for over 1800 years.  It appears that something similar was going on here. By someone listening to what had happened to a person and by receiving them warmly, with acceptance and giving them validation, the person was able to release their shame surrounding the event.

So this showed what an impact unresolved shame has on our bodies and minds. It shows the importance of having a supportive community to overcome this.

Repetition Compulsion

One of the key philosophies of Feeling is Healing is that fact that the natural state of our bodies is one of health and wholeness. Our bodies are always trying to give us opportunities to lead us back to that state.

When we experience some kind of traumatic event, it leaves an imprint in our nervous systems if it is not processed properly. Our bodies are always trying to find ways to resolve this. In terms of relational trauma, we will subconsciously seek out people who are similar to the person who originally caused the trauma. Subsciously, we want to replay the same scenario, but with a different result.  No matter how much cognitive awareness we have, the subconscious pull will magnetise us towards certain individuals and certain circumstances. This is known as repetition compulsion.

For example, if I grew up in an environment where everything that went wrong was labelled as being my fault, I am likely to be subconsciously drawn to relationships where I am treated this way by others. This won’t be an obvious or a conscious choice.  During recovery I have been able to see how these experiences, painful as they are, can be very useful in making us aware of wounds that we still need to heal.abusive relationships

For example, a few years ago I felt a strong pull towards a particular man.  After interacting with him for a while I could see certain behaviours that he displayed that matched those of my primary childhood caregivers.

The way I got myself out of this situation was by paying attention to my feelings and getting in touch with the immense pain that I felt when he did something that hurt me. By sitting with myself and processing the anger, distress, despair, sadness, fear, terror etc. that came up, I was able to scream, shake, rock and cry and release the trauma from my body. I also hugged myself to soothe my scared and lonely inner child. I also asked myself where this feeling had come from in my past.jealousy narcissist

I could see that the reasons this man was hurting me was due to his own unresolved pain from his own childhood.  This brought up a very strong urge in me to want to fix him so that he could then love me. It also showed me that I have a strong inner conviction that I need to believe that I have the ability to change someone in order to feel safe, even though I know cognitively that this is not possible. This is very common for people who have grown up in homes that were unsafe. Believing that one can change one’s own parents to make them love them is a very strong coping mechanism to survive an unsafe and inescapable environment. 

By this man triggering emotions in me that had been stuck in my body for many years, I was able to bring them up into my awareness, so that I could process them and release them from my body.

Obstacles in Recovery

When we start to recover after narcissistic abuse, there are some potential pitfalls that we need to protect ourselves from:

talking therapy

  1. Not all therapists understand narcissistic abuse. It may not be covered in their training in very much detail. When searching for a therapist, it is essential to ask them what their knowledge of narcissistic abuse and domestic abuse is. If you are invalidated by a therapist, this can causes secondary gaslighting, which can re-traumatise you (know as sanctuary trauma).
  2. Needing to get others to understand and to validate us: It is typical for narcissistic abuse survivors to be invalidated by those who do not understand narcissistic abuse. Although extremely painful at the time, this can force us to learn the essential lesson of how to validate ourselves.
  3. Putting others above us and believing others before our own truth.
  4. Trying to get validation from those who have an agenda not to see us, such as other narcissistic abusers.
  5. Allowing others to be the judge of us.  Not feeling entitled to ask for what we need.
  6. Dealing with symptoms, rather than the cause, and believing that recovery is possible without processing and releasing past traumas.
  7. Being told to forgive and forget.
  8. Being told it is wrong to judge.

Have you managed to break through barriers during recovery? I would love to hear from you in the comments.