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
- "accountability" is the sense that "family members feel and act responsibly towards each other and meet each other's basic emotional needs"
- "intimacy" is when 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
- "dependency" is 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.
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:
- Recognize shame and it's triggers. Know how shame feels in your body, what thoughts are associated with it. Learn to predict situations in which you are likely to feel ashamed.
- Give yourself a reality check. Ask yourself where these expectations came from. Are they realistic? Do you even agree with those values? Is what is being asked of you even possible?
- Reach out. When we talk to compassionate others who can hear about our shame and not turn away, who can sometimes even utter "me too", we diminish the grip of shame on our psyches. Shame exists only in isolation. It is the myth that we are somehow less than, somehow untouchable to others. Experiencing the opposite is a powerful antidote.
- Tell others when you feel shamed by them. Many of us are so self-loathing that when someone says something unkind or hurtful, provoking that familiar feeling of shame, we don't say anything. Instead we pull into our shell and begin the narrative of self-recrimination. In order to learn not to be shame prone we must speak up and tell others how their words or actions have made us feel.
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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