I have written about shame before but wanted to expand on my earlier blog with some new information on how exactly we learn to be shame prone.
James Harper has written about this subject and explains that there are types of families that tend to be shaming. Harper, along with a colleague Hoopes (1990) says that healthy families all contain the following essential qualities to promote optimal emotional development in children-- "accountability"-- the sense that "family members feel and act responsibly towards each other and meet each other's basic emotional needs"; "intimacy"-- family members are "able to share physical touch, be nurturing to each other, and share emotional experiences" in a way that feels supportive and comforting; and "dependency"-- the "ability of family members to rely on each other emotionally for basic needs". This includes parents not being annoyed by the natural dependency of young children and being willing to continue "scaffolding" children well into adolescence as they learn to become more autonomous. Parents who fail to provide enough of these essential qualities inadvertently create shame experiences in children. If repeated often enough this can become part of the child's self-concept and identity. They feel that they are inconvenient to their parents, that their basic feelings are not acceptable, that their world is unpredictable. They learn to despise their natural needs to be dependent and also their normal failures and struggles as they grow and develop. They assume that if only they were "good enough" they would be loved and, therefor, their feeling unloved is somehow their own fault.
When kids experience shame a lot they naturally begin to internalize it. That emotional state gains preference in the nervous system and is more easily accessed. I compare this to driving down a dirt road every day for several week. Over time you will notice grooves getting established in the dirt so that it gets harder to deviate from the path you have been taking each time. This is similar to the way our brains respond-- the more we feel something (or think something, or do something) the more that pathway is reinforced and becomes easier for the brain to find the next time. So numerous experiences with shame as a child make is "shame prone" in adulthood. Research shows that people who are "shame prone" or have "trait shame" learn to expect to be shamed and they learn to hide their flaws from others. This impairs their ability to feel intimately connected with others and can even cause these people to lash out and shame others before they can be shamed themselves. According to studies people high in "trait" shame tend to also be more pessimistic, narcissistic, dependent, emotionally labile, feel victimized and be introverted. In an effort to cope with chronic shame people often turn to substance abuse, addictive behaviors (sex, gambling, eating, work, exercise) and/or chronic interpersonal conflict in an effort to ward off the collapsing into shame they so fear. Mills, Imm, Walling and Weiler (2008) found that children with higher shame experiences also had higher cortisol in their bloodstream, a sign of physiological stress. Remember that the brain does not distinguish emotional versus physical pain in where the information is processed or how the body responds. So shame provokes a stress response in the body that, over time, can lead to chronic stress-related illnesses including more trouble returning to physiological baseline after feeling shamed.
Relationally shame-prone partners tend to have insecure attachment styles (Karos, 2006; Wells & Hansen, 2003) and distressed romantic relationships (Greenberg, 2008). Their sex lives also tend to be problematic/unfulfilling. I am often fond of telling couples that anger and shame are two tried and true arousal killers. Shame-prone partners have trouble communicating in their relationships because they are so guarded and are constantly trying to defend themselves against having shameful parts of themselves discovered. They may perceive attempts to be close as intrusive and an attempt to uncover things that they feel shame about. They may also be aggressive and try to push others away, especially as that person is trying to get closer to them. Sadly in this way shame-prone people often create the situation they are fearing-- being seen as "bad" or "unlovable", which reinforces their feelings of shame.
While all of this is no doubt frustrating to those who are trying to love and be with a shame-prone person it is important to remember that shame-prone people, like all of us, have earned their scars and defenses. Research shows that people who are chronically struggling with shame tend to have histories of abuse, be it sexual (Feinauer, Hilton & Callahan, 2003), physical (Kim, Talbot & Cicchetti, 2009) or other traumas (Lee, Scragg & Turner, 2001). They also are more frequently abandoned by their spouses (Claesson & Sohlert 2002). So they have plenty of reasons to feel vulnerable, victimized and exposed. Empathy and emotional validation are keys to helping a shame-prone person feel more comfortable. Essentially acknowledging their shame and giving it words can be a great weight off of the shame-prone person's shoulders. Of course since those who are shame prone tend to see judgement at every turn it's important to phrase things carefully and let the person know that it makes sense that they feel shame based on their history. It can also be very powerful to share some of your own shame feelings in an effort to normalize their response.
Chronic shame can rob a person of adequate self-worth, goal achievement, fulfilling relationships and feelings of love, joy and satisfaction. If you or someone you love struggles with chronic or intense feelings of shame I recommend that you reach out to a mental health professional to discuss treatment. Psychotherapy, whether it is individual, in groups or as a couple can be a powerful way of healing this toxic emotion.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.