The Shame of It All

IN THE WEST, our introduction to power and dominance comes early. Starting with our first moves towards independence, we learn our desire for freedom can be squelched by someone bigger, more powerful, even Goddess-like. Mom. She is the order of things, purveyor of “No”,  steadfast in her exertion of Mother’s nature. She is the Queen of Toddlerdom.

Of course, a good mother doesn’t start out harsh. (And a “mother” can have any gender–it’s the role played that is essential.) She is initially affectionate, swaddling the infant in care and unconditional love. Even cleaning up poop seems to bring her delight. (See how she coos while changing a diaper.)

But around 9 to 16 months of age, when the infant morphs into a toddler, becoming ambulatory and indiscriminate in curiosity, Mother, the ultimate Transformer, shape shifts into her steely exterior.

No! Don’t color on the walls. No! Stay away from the socket. No! Don’t hit your sister. No! Don’t eat the cat’s tail. NO! NO! NO! NO!

According to one study, toddlers in the US hear a prohibiting “no” (or derivative) every 9 minutes–this after a lifetime of basic body functions causing celebratory attention. With a cascade of “no’s” comes the introduction of shame into the emotional lexicon, inhibiting actions and self-expression, teaching submission to forces more powerful than one’s own. Granted, the role of these “no’s” is to distinguish right from wrong, safe from dangerous, but really, who knows what’s going on in the youngster’s head.

The danger a well-meaning parent identifies in the environment can become evidence for the child that, actually, it is the parent who is threatening. Given the child’s temperament and the caregiver’s child rearing skills, the child may become anxious, or alternatively, shut down, perhaps fearing abandonment for not being good enough, or wishing to flee contact altogether.

Everybody has to learn to feel shame. It’s a basic way we bond socially, and has been for millions of years, although there are variations between cultures, families, societies, and people for how it is learned, applied, as well as experienced. Japan is typically described as a high-shame culture. The adage about how the nail that sticks out becomes the one hammered down is commonly stated as evidence of Japan’s use of shame to order its society.

The US is also a shame-based society, although unlike the Japanese, we are predominantly shame avoidant, a trait seen in the self-centered, so-called “narcissistic” obsession with appearances and status for which we are globally recognized–a trait Americans have also successfully exported, especially through technologies and movies.

Some of our shame avoidance likely arises from child rearing practices that promote the rugged individualism symbolizing the American way of life. No one wants to seem too vulnerable to the influence of another. Yet this is likely only one reason the persona often takes precedence over the authentic self. The US is also the industrialized country with the highest childhood abuse record, and childhood abuse is perhaps one of life’s most shaming experiences.

Generally speaking, shame is a healthy and useful emotion. At its core, shame is the fear of disconnection, and as such has evolved to support “prosocial” behavior, and acting in ways that secure membership in a group, hence ensuring one’s survival. Shame builds social bonds. It signals to others that you know you have failed to respond as expected. The humiliation, sadness, fear, and anger that shame causes are like a hot poker, reducing the likelihood you’ll repeat the foible that led to feelings of shame.

When shame motivates prosocial behavior, it is usually accompanied by its fair-eyed twin, pride. With pride nearby, shame can rest lazily in the shade, letting her attention-seeking sister do the heavy lifting–earning an esteemed place in the group. Shame comes into action only when necessary–like when sloth, greed, deceit or another member of the antisocial emotional pack gets too rowdy.

Shame, however, takes on a more defensive role when it is a response to childhood abuse. Then shame reverts to its more primitive form, acting more as neurobiological regulator than as emotional prod for dealing with the social consequences of one’s actions.

In a recent blog post on EMDR, I wrote about how the body reacts to a perceived threat:

In the presence of a perceived threat, the body (including the brain) instinctively organizes for survival–activating fight, flight, freeze, submit, or attach responses. Thinking about a threat while it’s happening can slow down the survival response, thus energy is diverted away from the frontal lobes–the part of the brain responsible for higher order cognitive processes, including creating coherent narratives of events. With the thinking part of the brain shut down, there is no way to integrate overwhelming sensory information into a coherent, meaningful account of the trauma. Instead, emotional reactions are split-off from sensory memories, muscle memories, perceptions, and thoughts also registered at the time of the traumatic event.

Typically, in response to submitting to abuse, a child will split off feelings of shame along with the fear she felt. Furthermore, to stay emotionally attached to the caregiver–and to believe her caregiver is still a worthy love object and attachment figure–the child may default to the belief that she is the one who is bad and worthless, undeserving of love. However, the outcome is more than just feelings and thoughts contributing to low self-worth. When shame triggers reminders of the abuse (which for many people, will include intimate relationships), submissive defense responses will also be triggered. There are at least two long-term problems when shame becomes associated with submitting to abuse:

  • Isolation: Like many triggers associated with a traumatic event, shame will likely be dissociated in an attempt to avoid reminders of the abuse. But as noted, shame is a useful and important emotion for discovering what counts as socially appropriate and competent behavior. If you have to dissociate feelings of shame to feel safe, you are at risk of ignoring important social cues that identify the prosocial behaviors that will secure membership in a group. Lacking a healthy relationship with shame, there is greater likelihood of social isolation, which is often witnessed in persons with histories of chronic childhood abuse.
  • Revictimization: When shame becomes an indicator of the need to submit, the cues that signal danger will likely fail to activate other survival tactics, such as fighting or fleeing. In one study of people with histories of childhood sexual abuse who also had been revictimized as adults, feelings of shame were the greatest indicator of the likelihood of revictimization–even greater than dissociation, the hallmark defense response of the trauma survivor.

Shame is the emotion that teaches us it’s unsafe to act on some of our natural impulses, and to curb behaviors that might interfere with social connections. Again, this is not a bad thing. However, when shame becomes associated with one’s personhood and sense of value, well, that’s when shame has lost it’s utility as a tool for social connection and becomes a person’s private hell.

No one wants to talk about the shame associated with histories of childhood abuse. But talking about this shame helps disintegrate the self-persecuting shell it creates, which although constructed to keep a person safe, also keeps the world out. If I were to speak about abuse-related shame symbolically (as a good Jungian would), I would describe the Wizard of Oz as a tale about overcoming shame, with all the characters representing parts of the self that split off in response to the trauma of abuse: Tin Woodman=love & attachment; Scarecrow=thoughts; Lion=courage to feel fear; and Dorothy=isolated, wounded self recoiling from the persecuting shell of shame. The yellow brick road is the journey towards integration and away from the fear of overwhelming feelings of shame. The Wicked Witch is Dorothy’s persecuting shame, keeping Dorothy in a false state of goodness (I mean really, that bow?), unable to address the feelings of low self-worth ignited when shame gets too close. Once Dorothy connects with her courage to face down the Wicked Witch, she begins to gain her stride, commencing the schlep to Oz, which granted, turns out to be a false start, but still, she finds herself one step closer to an authentic sense of self and a realistic understanding of the world she inhabits. And really, that’s what healing shame is all about: becoming what vulnerability researcher Brené Brown calls whole hearted, taking the risk to love yourself (even the ugly parts), to become vulnerable, and to open to the rough and tumble nature of belonging to the tribe in which shame plays a necessary and binding role.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a mental health scholar and registered marriage & family therapist intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.

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