While in Northern Thailand I had the opportunity to experience bonded moments with elephants. I also witnessed incredible mistreatment of life, both human and animal. It is from these experiences and AST Model work that this piece emerged to be shared with you.

The conditioned shame response is like the baby elephant taught ongoingly through isolation, physical pain, prodding and even torture to become submissive to its human handlers and chained on a short leash to its post. When that elephant grows up and a fire rages through the circus tent despite the elephant’s colossal strength and instincts to survive she does nothing. She will not break the chain links, but remains frozen, a conflict of impulses both natural and conditioned keeps her stuck and her life at the mercy of the flames encircling her unless someone else comes to rescue her. (Learn more about AST Model’s crucial principle of External Agency by clicking on this learning link. https://www.re-embodylife.com/external-agency/

In the case I just described the elephant has been successfully trained in a term I use called Learned Helplessness. In the above scenario, which has and does happen in reality too many times to admit, (yes, to elephants in circuses, work camps, logging operations, zoos, etc.) the elephants innate impulses have been re-routed, sent underground and a learned program of docility is slowly and painfully programed in its place.

Why am I speaking about the brutal ‘taming’ of elephants and its awful and almost inconceivable consequences? Because it draws a sharp parallel to how brutal, inhumane and life-killing the effective conditioning of shame can be and how often the case of the elephant rings true for those made to endure shame’s chronic conditioning.


The above example also highlights how conditioned shaming can limit, if not nearly extinguish our very powerful survival circuits, and very often quash our imperative to live, let alone thrive.

Although not a new concept, it is viscerally an undeniable reality when you encounter a being of colossal proportions, strength, intelligence, nurturance and instinct submit to the care, whim, or abuse of a handler often an eighth of its size, force, raw instinct and intelligence time and time again.

And your body registers at least 2 crucial things while you witness this:

1) How incredibly dependent mammals are upon bonded relationships to survive and to be motivated regardless of whether these are healthy or abusive relationships.

2) How easily our survival circuits can be hijacked by alternative programing. How fear and shame are awarded the prize for being the most effective hijackers.

Reaching out to the elephant, entering with a fire-proof vest the circle of flames in which she stands frozen, helping to unlock the chains, guiding the elephant out and away from the falling embers; this is what AST Model work does for people who are chronic shame survivors. As dramatic as this description sounds, it is apt in describing the level of distorted response to life-affirming behavior, the tremendous, silent suffering a shame survivor endures, and the incredible stakes that learned helplessness and chronic shaming impose upon those who survive it.

The good news is that the malleability of our neurobiological circuits that allow this conditioning to take hold work both ways. If we can condition mammals and human mammals into learning a life-killing program, we can teach them to respond to a life-affirming one. Again, that is often an important phase of AST model work. This phase is what I call Learned Hopefulness.

To learn more about AST Model principles of Holistic Shame Resolution register for the May 16th Webinar: AST Model’s 3 Hidden Keys to Shame Resolution. Register here: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_1QrpFSBNSUiSjZ_Ek2QJWg