Shame is an inner experience. It is a sense of not being wanted, unlovable, and a belief that one is fundamentally bad producing a feeling of not belonging. Thoughts such as ‘I’m stupid’, ‘I’m a failure’, ‘I’m defective’, ‘I’m not good enough’, and ‘I hate myself abound.’
There is an assumption that shame must be denied, minimised or endured. The process of doing this results in the creation of numerous coping strategies. These coping strategies require a significant amount of energy to maintain and lead to stress.
Where Does Shame Come From?
We learn shame as a child. Certain types of family increase the probability of developing shame.
There are four kinds of families that produce the shame tormenting a person:
1. Neglectful Family
2. Controlling Family
3. Enmeshing Family
4. Abusive Family
The Neglectful Family
In this family, the parents fail to parent. They talk about love, but there are no actions that support their words. The parents are more focused on the social standing of the family rather than the needs of the children. There is a tendency to engage others to be the caregivers to the family.
The children have no clues that they are valued. When the child communicates with the parents, they receive little or no response.
Human beings thrive on contact and when contact is lacking or non-existent the child perceives this neglect as there being something wrong with them.
The Controlling Family
This family is authoritarian and set in their ways. Things are done a certain way as that is the way it is supposed to be.
Any attempt to deviate from the “rules” is made to feel shameful, and the child comes to believe that they have no self-value. Any part of the family that is not perfect is hidden behind a facade of perfection. As such all members of the family are taught to hide shameful parts.
The Enmeshed Family
The enmeshed family is the interdependent family. There is no apparent individuality in this family. What belongs to one belongs to all. When trying to understand who they are, a member of this family will look to the other members of the family rather than within themselves.
The members of the family support all the members of the family emotionally. As the separate members of the family have a crippled sense of individuality their sense of responsibility and effectiveness as an individual is limited.
Any shame in the family is a shared shame rather than a shame that arises from what the family member has done. The sense of one’s personal power is lost.
The Abusive Family
Emotional, physical, or sexually abusive is characteristic of this family. The abused person feels that they are damaged and unfit to live a fulfilled life.
A child abused when tiny, takes on a sense of worthlessness in which, in adult life, does not seem to have an origin. This sense of inadequacy is re-experienced whenever a failing or an aggressive act is encountered.
The emotionally abusive family uses ridicule, punishment, and putdowns.
The physically abusive family employs spanking, striking and emotional intimidation.
The sexually abusive family invades the body of the child, causing them to lose the sense of self and through the violation of their feelings and ownership of their body they are left feeling that something is flawed and shameful about them.
The Effects of Shame
The consequences of shame show up in a negative way in many areas of life:
Failure of Self-esteem
With shame producing feelings of not being wanted, being unlovable, being fundamentally bad having confidence in one’s abilities is unlikely. Believing that one is flawed one is unlikely to have high regard for self.
Become an Aggressor or a Victim
The person who is carrying the burden of shame also brings with them hurt and rage. As an aggressor, they can take out their pain and anger on others weaker than themselves. At other times, they can fall into the role of a victim particularly if they have been a victim of their original family.
Difficulty with Intimate Relationships
Intimate relationships require revealing our real selves to a significant other. For the person covering their shame, this is impossible. Instead, they maintain a false image of themselves doing things to impress the other and hoping to “buy” themselves a relationship.
Perfectionism leading to being Controlling and Rigid
To the person living with shame, all love is conditional. Years of pleasing parents by attempting to meet their expectations means that acceptance is based on performance. The performance itself is seen as concerning perfection in all things.
The need to control things so that things can be done right becomes necessary to feel that they can be accepted. Being rigid, and controlling is the safest way to proceed as unpredictable events can shatter their fragile world.
Holds onto and Protects a Facade
Internally the person living with shame believes that they are not needed, loved or respected. To improve how they feel, they create a false identity, a facade.
The false identity is a public facade intended to show that they are indispensable to those around them. This facade can change depending on the group they are with but always carries with an attitude of people-pleasing.
Through always trying to be indispensable to others they are attempting to buy love and will be devastated when the effort that they are putting in is not returned in the same measure.
Shame is damaging and can be toxic. The important question is how do you heal it? That is answered in StartPoint Counselling’s next blog post.
You’ll be amazed how counselling can help you heal from shame