For many people, feelings are scary. This is not something that is necessarily conscious, but it is why people “forget their childhoods”, avoid thinking about difficult subjects, and why relationships can be so difficult. Whilst there are many painful feelings, e.g., fear, helplessness, loneliness, unsafety and panic, one of the most uncomfortable and painful of all is Shame. Shame is a feeling that strikes us at the core. It is visceral. It affects our basic sense of who we are. It makes us feel unworthy, unlovable, deeply flawed and inferior, and wishing we could disappear. Shame is something we don’t talk about very often. It is different from humiliation and embarrassment, and very different from guilt. Shame is the notion that one is bad. Guilt creates anxiety and is related to behavior we exhibit that violates our moral and ethical code. When one feels one is bad, one makes desperate efforts to escape that feeling. This can include addictive behaviors, impulsivity, eating disorders, and projecting it onto others in the form of aggression. (Anger is often a defense against shame). This acting out behavior then reinforces our sense of not being deserving, and of being defective/bad. Shame has also been linked to depression and even suicide.
WHERE DOES SHAME COME FROM
The origins of shame are childhood experiences of rejection, criticism, abandonment, various forms of violation, neglect and abuse. What we all want most of all is to be loved and to belong. To feel connected. We learn how to reach for others before we learn to speak. The templates for how to be in a relationship get created in infancy and early childhood. For the first 10 months of life, in a “good enough” (Winnicott, D., 1953) family, most of what gets communicated to the infant is positive. In toddlerhood, there is a dramatic and rapid increase in negative comments and expressions of frustration on the part of parents. The child has come to expect a joyful response from the parent(s) and instead, receives frequent comments of judgment and criticism. The child shifts from a state of ecstasy to collapse. He/she goes from feeling connected and “in union with” the caregiver to feeling alone. This is very stressful and frightening to a young child. Their biological drive to be loved and feel connected becomes a source of fear and shame. Their basic sense of safety and security is violated. Their fantasy of being securely attached becomes a source of doubt.
Because shame is related to need, the developmental needs of the child become a source of confusion, fear and anxiety. Shame violates the natural bond between mother and child. Because the search for soothing from the parent becomes unsafe, it becomes something to be avoided. The inability to comfortably reach for and receive soothing results in difficulties in the child’s capacity to self-soothe. The shamed child/adolescent begins to shut down and look for soothing elsewhere. In adulthood (and even adolescence), this soothing takes the form of alcohol and other addictions and compulsions. Having toxic shame, one never feels “good enough”. As a result of frequent rejection, dismissiveness or minimization of their basic needs, these children ultimately develop into adolescents and adults who have conflictual feelings about the concept of need, which then translates into conflictual intimate relationships, where needs and their healthy expression are essential. These shame-inducing behaviors towards children have another [mostly unconscious] intent -- to enforce compliance. The repetitive messages of criticism and rejection that one receives in childhood get internalized in the form of self-talk, an inner voice that says over and over that you are not good enough, are unworthy/undeserving, inadequate and defective. The harsh voice of the abusive or neglectful parent becomes one’s own internal dialogue that gets triggered and reinforced constantly via self-talk (again, largely unconscious). Without awareness of this process and its origins, this shame and shaming behavior becomes inter-generational. Many parents, sadly, believe it is an effective way of shaping children’s behavior. This chronic exposure to experiences of shame impacts one’s development, self-esteem/image, relationships, drive, identity, moods, and overall functioning. The stress it creates also increases biological aging.
There are many different theories about shame, some of them are conflicting. However, at the core of many disorders, is shame. If we don’t address it, we miss the boat. The remedy for shame is compassion and empathy within the context of a kind, sensitive, attuned relationship. A safe therapeutic relationship provides the foundation for releasing the wounds of shame. It is hard to have a healthy intimate relationship when one has unresolved shame. Self-love and self-esteem are a prerequisite for a healthy relationship with others. Self-love, which includes kindness, compassion and respect for the self (as opposed to the narcissistic form of self-love), develops through forgiveness of the self for the violations and abuse we suffered at the hands of others (i.e., recognizing it was not our fault), and living in a way that makes us feel proud, e.g., engaging in acts of kindness, compassion and generosity. After all, what warrants rejection, shaming and criticism of a toddler or young child? Mindfulness is also important in healing. Meditation reduces stress, facilitates emotional and mental health, helps fight addictions, fosters self-love, forgiveness and self-acceptance, and modifies the pathways of age-related illness. In therapy, those triggering memories get activated and, in the context of a safe, supportive and compassionate environment/relationship, have the opportunity to get examined, understood and healed. In the course of therapy, we come to recognize that we have internalized someone else’s difficulties coping, unresolved histories, and lack of understanding/capacity, and we can begin to separate from those messages from who we truly are, and grieve for the child who was the helpless recipient of those projections.