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 families that promote shame lack certain fundamental qualities that protect against shame. These qualities are accountability, intimacy and dependency. If these qualities are present in sufficient amounts in a family system children can grown up without undue amounts of shame. To break these
Again if these qualities are not present enough kids will end up feeling toxic amounts of shame. 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.
“Children are especially vulnerable to shame." commented Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW in this article in Huffington Post. "Self-centered and dependent, young humans will easily translate, “You did something bad,” into, “You ARE bad.” We need to be aware and careful about the messages we send.
One potent quote I heard about shame was this --
Shame is a lie someone told you about yourself
(that you believed).
Whether it is intentional or not we need to be careful about the messages that we transmit to kids. That they are frustrating, that they are "too much", too needy, too demanding, incompetent, embarrassing or not measuring up to our standards. They may believe these falsities many, many years into the future.
Perhaps one of the reasons that shame is such a persisting emotion and so hard to "un-learn" is that it is tied to our very survival. Shame is centered in the autonomic nervous system. Unfortunately the human brain, in some ways, is pretty dumb. It cannot distinguish between physical threat and emotional threat, just like on a brain level it does not distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain (see my earlier blog on this). When the brain perceives any kind of threat it responds by booting up "crisis mode"-- the autonomic nervous system. This is the response of the brain to shame, probably because shame implies a threat to important relationships. Especially in childhood our relationships with caregivers are life and death matters. If we are being shamed by our caregivers we respond as if our survival has been threatened-- because it has. Just like being attacked by a bear we have the urge to hide or flee. If that does not work we resort to attack. Shame is hard-wired in to these deep areas of the brain (the ANS) that are designed to protect us from actual annihilation. So once these areas have been reprogrammed to feel shame it can be very hard to root out.
Shame proneness in kids is sadly predictive of numerous problems in adulthood, including alcohol abuse, high risk sexual behavior, legal problems, suicide attempts and social isolation. Shame proneness, while not associated with age or socioeconomic level, is also associated with low self-esteem and PTSD as well as the problems mentioned above (Ashby et al. 2006, Crossley & Rockett 2005, Feiring & Taska 2005, Stuewig & McCloskey 2005). Shame-proneness assessed in the fifth grade predicted later risky driving behavior, earlier initiation of drug and alcohol use, and a lower likelihood of practicing safe sex (Tangney & Dearing 2002). Similarly, proneness to problematic feelings of shame has been positively linked to substance use and abuse in adulthood (Dearing et al. 2005, Meehan et al. 1996, O’Connor et al. 1994, Tangney et al. 2006). For people who are HIV positive, having persistent feelings of shame predicted t-cell decline, showing compromised immune function (Weitzman et al. 2004).
Shame-prone people also engage in aggressive acts more than those who are not shame-prone. For example they tend to verbally attack, blame and externalize as well as the more passive-aggressive option of simply talking badly about someone behind their back. Shame-prone folks are also more aggressive physically, either interpersonally or by attacking objects/possessions important to the person they are angry at (think keying someone's car). Sadly the shame-prone person may also harm themselves or simply ruminate in their unexpressed anger. Interestingly these individuals admit that their anger gets them into trouble and is destructive of relationships but they seem to have trouble not being triggered into these negative behaviors.
Brene Brown has written and talked extensively about shame and how to become less shame-prone. She suggests the following steps to help recover from a shame-prone upbringing:
For more help with shame I recommend Brene Brown's Ted Talk or her book on shame. She also has other resources available on her website.
Therapy can also be a wonderful tool to work on deep feelings of shame or surviving a shaming childhood. People can heal from toxic shame and learn to more fully love themselves and live the lives they truly deserve.
Wishing you happiness and peace,
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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,
How do we find ourselves? If you have ever watched a "good" mother and baby pair, where you get that warm feeling in your chest as you watch them volley back and forth with expressions dancing across their faces, you have seen the formation of the authentic self. As babies we simply "are". We cry when upset, coo when happy, sleep when tired. And if our caregivers respond with love, admiration, attention and acceptance we thrive. We learn that we have a self inside of us and that it is valued. Later as toddlers we also learn that there are aspects of that self that come into conflict with our world, like the self that wants to use mom's lipstick to paint flowers on the wall or the self that wants cake for breakfast. If we are lucky and have adequate parents they set loving limits with us while also helping us feel accepted as a whole person even when individual behaviors are problematic.
However if you have ever witnessed a parent shaming a child by saying things like "you can do better than that" or "why aren't you more like _____?" or "girls (or boys) don't do that", etc., then you have also witnessed the destruction of the authentic self. Once the authentic self is under regular attack from parents who are unwilling to accept the child for who they naturally are a false self begins to form. It starts with the realization that they are not meeting their parent's standards and feelings of inadequacy and shame begin to spawn.
Over time children internalize the shame of feeling that they are a disappointment to these parents and create a "false self" that is more in line with what they think their parents want. However this self is not authentic and does not represent the true inner world of the child. The child has betrayed itself in order to maintain the attachment relationship, which sadly is the only option a child has in this situation due to their complete dependence on their caregivers.
As they grow up, however, these kids are plagued by feeling inauthentic and consequently don't establish relationships that contain true intimacy. They may also harbor deep feelings of rage at being asked to abandon themselves in order to please the other, even if in the current relationship this is not being asked of them. It's as if they have decided that this is the price of admission to relationships and they do it reflexively. Living life as a false-self also predisposes one to depression since you cannot experience true vitality and aliveness if you are not being authentic. This pain of being estranged from one's authentic self can often lead to acting out behaviors designed to "force" the self to feel something. Years ago a patient told me that she could only feel something when she was doing dangerous things. The rest of the time she felt deadened. She had sacrificed her authentic self as a young child to please overly perfectionistic parents who demanded straight A's and perfect manners. She became, as one could predict, an alternatingly depressed and angry adolescent who rebelled with drugs and high risk behaviors as a way to not only punish her parents for rejecting her authentic self but also as a means to feel alive.
Living as a false self can also lead one to make decisions that are ultimately not fulfilling, from choosing the wrong major in college to getting into the wrong relationship or taking the wrong job. One's true self is a compass and should steer you towards things that nourish your deepest soul. People living from the false self have no such compass and often drift, feeling confused, depressed and empty. They move through life "doing" things but find no fulfillment in them. I often see these folks in therapy and their refrain is "I have everything but I feel depressed/lonely/empty-- what's wrong with me?"
Thankfully therapy is a great place to discover one's authentic self. Through therapy a person can begin to explore what really matters, how one really feels and how one is essentially "wired". Therapists, because they are not invested in you turning out any particular way, can offer encouragement for the process of re-discovering your nascent true self and bringing it into your daily life.
There are several authors who have written quite poingnantly over the years about issues of the false self and the therapeutic process of repairing this type of damage, such as Alice Miller's
Prisoners of Childhood: The Drama of The Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self, Karen Horney's theory of personality, D.W. Winnicott's concept of "true" and "false" selves, or Tian Dayton's article in Huffington Post. All agree on the fact that personal happiness and well-being is only achievable through a re-claiming of the true/authentic self when a false self has come to be dominant.
If you have been struggling with issues that you suspect may be related to developing a false self consider seeking therapy. It's never too late to be the person you were meant to be.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Guilt and shame are
Well, certainly no one wants to feel either. Some of us, especially therapists, seem to be "guilt magnets" and "shame prone". We cringe at the slightest sign that we may have hurt or offended someone and spend hours thinking about it afterwards. We may even avoid that person in the future for fear that
they are upset with us even though they never explicitly said so.
Psychology has long made a distinction, however, between guilt and shame. Guilt is actually considered to be a desirable emotion as far as society is concerned. Guilt is defined as feeling bad for something you have DONE. That is different from shame, which is feeling bad for WHO YOU ARE. Consider this-- if we lived in a world where no one ever felt guilty, i.e. never felt bad for hurting someone or cheating or stealing-- then what would keep people from doing whatever they wanted? If you knew that whatever you were going to do would not upset anyone in the slightest then why not do whatever you want?
So if guilt has a function, then what about shame? While I am not an anthropologist, my personal theory is that shame is just overshooting the mark of guilt. I think that Mother Nature gave us the capacity to feel guilt for the reasons stated above, but sometimes that feeling grows too large and instead of being just about our behavior it becomes about our identity, about who we are. Shame does not serve any positive function. While guilt makes us want to move towards people in order to repair the damage, shame makes us feel so bad that we isolate and move away. As shame researcher Brenee Brown puts it "shame corrodes the part of us that thinks we can do better [and therefore is willing to go and say we are sorry]". Shame leads to self destructive behaviors and isolating from others. Shame is toxic.
So what are we to do if we find that, like many patients who come to my practice, we seem to be "shame prone"? What if we tend to feel shame about even small things? Working on shame resilience is an excellent goal for therapy. Shame can only survive in secrecy and shadow. If you share your shame with someone, almost always you will find that the feeling diminishes. When we can see that the other person does not run screaming out of the room after we make our "confession", we don't feel so bad. And sometimes we are even lucky enough to talk to someone who reciprocates our shame tale with one of their own. Hearing someone say "oh, I've done that too" or "I did something else that made me feel the same way" we feel tremendous relief. We feel that we are not alone and perhaps we are not the worst person on the plant.
Psychotherapy provides a regular opportunity to talk about shameful experiences and feelings. It gives us the opportunity to shine a light of objectivity and neutrality on the shame-drenched sludge that we have been harboring in the deeper recesses of ourselves. And in that light of objectivity and through the compassion of another person we find that the shame shrivels and retreats, growing smaller and less powerful. Keeping the secret of shame is what keeps it alive. Sharing the secret of shame is the antidote.
Researcher Dr. Brene Brown has written several Ted Talks and written several books about shame. She notes that "shame happens between people and needs to be healed between people". I could not agree more. Fortunately for us Dr. Brown has made a career about researching shame and has come up with four common characteristics of people who are "shame resilient":
If you are interested in learning more about shame I recommend any of Dr. Brene Brown's work on shame and shame resiliency. Another great resource is work on self-compassion, which is another way to fight shame. For more information on self-compassion see Dr. Kristin Neff's website on the subject. She has links to her Ted Talk as well as information about self-compassion and even a self-quiz you can use to see how you rank on self-compassion.
One of the services I offer in my work is to assess your level of "shame-proneness" with a paper and pencil test developed by shame researchers. This test can be administered and feedback given all within a 45-minute appointment.
If you are interested in talking to me more about shame please feel free to send me an email using the form below or call me at 512-293-3807
Shame, embarrassment and self-interest are powerful motivators. They can keep us from letting others truly know us. We tell ourselves that "what they don't know won't hurt them" or "it's not relevant" or "they wouldn't understand". But if you truly examine why you don't tell those close to you these difficult truths it usually comes down to the trifecta of secrecy: shame, embarrassment and self-interest.
Why share? How harmful are these undisclosed bits of ourself? Isn't everyone entitled to their own private lives?
In a recent post on the blog "Mirror of Intimacy", Alexandra Katehakis and Tom Bliss wrote of disclosure that "Keeping secrets from, or telling lies to, your partner can be an enormous burden that will ultimately get in the way of your sexual intimacy. A guilty conscience is not sexy, but making yourself vulnerable is". They went on to say that "Exposing your true self means facing your shortcomings and any accompanying shame you feel about your actions. Speaking the truth about things that make you feel bad about yourself can be scary or painful, but is essential if you want to build your relationship on honesty. Living a life of secrets and lies doesn't allow love and sexuality to flourish but, instead, suffocates them."
Katehakis and Bliss recommend that we "Take time today to think about what an act of courage it would be for you to disclose any secrets and lies you're holding that separate you from your partner. Are you ready to face yourself and stand up as an adult? Keep current with your partner by banishing secrets and lies from your relationship, and experience what it's like to live in honesty every day."
That's a tall order for many of us. Especially if you grew up in a dysfunctional family where secrets and lies were the norm. Many of us were taught that being vulnerable would be met with blame, punishment, shaming, teasing or attack. Certainly this would train us to keep anything difficult or potentially self-incriminating to ourselves. And to those of us who grew up in dysfunctional homes not only does this secrecy seem normal, it seem smart! Why make ourselves open to the slings and arrows of those around us? Haven't we suffered enough?
If only that strategy worked. I often tell those who work with me that I am a huge pragmatist. I really am. I aspire to do what works because in the end I just want the desired result. If lying or keeping secrets or sequestering parts of ourselves away from our loved ones worked I would have no issue with it. If it did not ultimately cost us, if it did not ultimately lead to loneliness and damaged relationships, I would encourage it. Whatever road leads to health and happiness I am fully prepared to not only walk myself but lead others on.
Unfortunately keeping secrets, lying (by omission or otherwise) and partitioning off parts of ourself so that no one knows the true us really doesn't work. It may serve to keep us safe in the moment, but ultimately it keeps us apart from those we yearn to be close to. It leaves us feeling that existential angst of "born alone, live alone, die alone". Which I firmly believe is NOT true! In fact, of all living organisms, humans are born to need others MORE, not less. We are inherently pack animals, desperately in need of connection to maintain our own mental and physical health.
When I work with people on trying to deepen connection to others I am fond of explaining the concept of "laddering intimacy". Relationships deepen when each person reveals something to the other that represents an emotional risk. This prompts the other person to respond with their own escalating level of emotional risk. The process builds on itself, giving each person the feeling that they are being trusted with important information. This bonds people together. When we fail to disclose risky material to our partners or loved ones our relationships wither and become flat. We drift apart. We no longer have that feeling of being tightly bound together. What we do to protect ourselves ultimately cuts us off from the very relationships that we need to survive emotionally.
I encourage you to take stock of your intimate relationships. How vulnerable have you made yourself? Are there parts of yourself that you keep hidden? Do you lie by omission? Keep secrets? Revise the truth? If so, what toll do you think it has taken on your relationships? Are you truly close? And what are you really afraid of?
Many years ago while still in training a wise supervisor (Dr. Marc Rathbun) told me "marriage isn't about having fun, it's about growing up". I think those words are true for any deep relationship, not only marriage. I think that being close to someone is about growing up and realizing that we cannot continue to protect ourselves while expecting others to be vulnerable. We cannot be halfway invested and yet reap the full benefit of intimacy. Part of being an adult is moving past one's fear, past one's selfish desire to protect oneself at the expense of another. Withholding, lying and secrecy leaves the relationship inequitable. We hold cards the other doesn't. This is the currency of childhood, of a time when centeredness is the natural phase of our development. But it holds no place in adulthood and cannot lead to truly deep bonds with others. And circling back to my pragmatism, the good news is, if you practice disclosure and put all of your cards on the table, you will be rewarded with the same. In this way you create the intimacy we all need. The price, I would argue, is worth the benefit.
Wishing you health, happiness and closeness with those you love,
What do we require of our mothers? Certainly not perfection. All mothers would fail at that. Dr. Donald Winnicott, a well-known psychoanalyst from decades past, used to say what we need from mothers is for them to be "good enough". What does "good enough" mean? Attachment researchers look for 3 qualities in "good enough" mothers: sensitivity -- being able to notice that an infant is distressed, responding quickly to the infant's signs of distress, and responding well enough that most of the time the infants get relief.
Keeping that in mind we could hardly find a worse type of mother than someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5the Edition (used by psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose mental illnesses) defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as:
A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:
1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):
a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal
may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.
b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in
order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.
2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):
a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to
reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.
b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little
genuine interest in others‟ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain
B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:
1. Antagonism, characterized by:
a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is
better than others; condescending toward others.
b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.
C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual‟s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).
**Please remember that this blog is not intended to diagnose anyone. If you have questions about diagnosis seek the counsel of a licensed mental health professional**
Now, given those criteria, you may be saying to yourself "wow, a lot of that sounds familiar!". Mothers who are highly narcissistic tend to see their children not as independent little people but rather as extensions of themselves. For this reason they are often very preoccupied with how the child looks, dresses, is seen by others, etc. Narcissistic mothers get upset if they feel that their child is in any way "reflecting badly" upon them, precisely because they do not differentiate between themselves and their children. They often use the talents, successes or qualities of their children for self-aggrandizement. Or sometimes the inverse-- they refuse to share the spotlight with their own child and will put them down or undermine them to ensure that they are the only "star" in the family.
Narcissists, underneath all of their inflation and grandiosity, are terribly insecure. If they ever feel devalued, belittled or exposed they may fly into a narcissistic rage, attacking anyone and everyone who does not support the version of themselves that the narcissist wants everyone to see.
Narcissistic mothers are incapable of helping children cultivate their authentic selves. If your authentic self loves playing in the mud your narcissistic mother may forbid you do do so but rather dress you in pretentious clothing and parade you around like a prize dog. If your authentic self wants to grow up and be a writer your narcissistic mother may chastise you and shame you into deciding you want to be a doctor or a lawyer (or whatever she thinks is appropriate). Children of narcissistic parents often have trouble finding their authentic selves even in adulthood because they learned long ago not to listen to what they really wanted or felt inside and rather learned to perform a role to keep their mother happy and engaged.
Narcissistic mothers may shun the less glamorous and more private aspects of parenting like bathing, cuddling, feeding or simply spending time with their children. They may use nannies, babysitters or other types of childcare so that they do not have to "waste their time" with these daily acts of devotion and nurturance. On the other hand the narcissistic mother may take extensive interest in things like dance classes, music lessons, athletic competitions or academic endeavors as they bring her a sense of self-aggrandizement by identification with the child's successes.
The important thing to know if you grew up with a narcissistic mother is that you CAN heal from this. Therapists are excellent at providing the type of attunement and nurturing that was missed by having this type of mother.
You may find this list of qualities of narcissistic mothers helpful:
21 signs of a narcissistic mother taken from Alexander Burgermeester's website
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.