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October 8, 2020

Shame Gone Wrong—& how to Fix the Damage.

“Shame on you!”

We’ve all probably heard this by age seven, and we’ve all said it, I know I have, once or twice; and at the very least, we’ve all thought it.

But do we ever slow down long enough to wonder, “What exactly are we hearing? What exactly are we saying?”

There are so many good reads on shame these days, as it’s high time we pulled back the curtains that have concealed its darkness. Shame is deeply rooted in our core, and so it cuts off the oxygen for self-compassion and self-love to grow and thrive. We get tangled up and stuck in shame, which is one of the most uncomfortable emotions we experience.

Allan Schore, a neuropsychologist and researcher on shame, has one of the most descriptively visceral definitions of shame I have read: “The subjective experience of inner collapse. A spiraling downward—a leakage in the middle of one’s being.” This painful and gut-wrenching emotion is what keeps us from wanting to feel it, and ultimately keeps us disconnected from ourselves and our relationships.

The experience of shame, like any emotion, falls on a continuum, from pro-social and healthy shame to pathological and destructive shame. Most chronic mental health problems and substance abuse addictions stem from a profound sense of shame, or low self-worth.

Shame gone very wrong, let’s say.

Because shame is a necessary social and evolutionary emotion, we develop it preverbally, by age two. Like all emotions, it’s developed within the context of a relationship. And, it’s during these formative years when babies learn to relate to their primary caregiver through what’s called relational attunement. It’s emotion-matching.

So, if my toddler were to walk over to me with a proud smile of joyfulness carrying a toy, and I responded to him with a stern look, furrowed brow, frown, and with a serious tone said, “No toy,” he would immediately drop from the high of elation and joy to a low, unpleasant emotional state. Disconnection from me. Shame. We would not have matched emotions, and my son would immediately cower and withdraw.

Now, here is where shame can go right. If I were to go to my son in that moment and give him a big hug and say, “Mommy loves you! You are a curious boy!” wearing a happy face and smile, then the mis-attunement is repaired and our connection is restored. My son has learned a rule while remaining connected to me and retaining a sense of being valued.

Where does shame go wrong?

If in that same scenario of mis-attunement, I do not go to my son at that moment and continue to ignore him, there is no opportunity for repair or reconnection. And if I continue to devalue my son without love or reconnection, or repair, on a regular basis, over time, he may develop pathological shame.

To be clear, it is healthy, normal, and reasonable for parents to not always repair or reconnect with our kids, and oftentimes there is unintentional mis-attunement with toddlers, kids, and adolescents. That’s an opportunity for kids to learn to self-soothe. So, this is not to shame us parents.

As the lovely child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott said, it’s all about the “good enough” parent. Healing from our shame means we heighten awareness around the origins of shame so that we can better understand it, de-identify with it, and become more aware of its re-surfacing, so as to stay connected with ourselves and others, in those moments.

If we go back to Schore’s gut-wrenching, visceral description of shame, it perfectly illustrates the feeling of shame that arises in toddlers, children, and adults. That moment of mis-attunement is essentially a sense of being abandoned from our caregivers, our tribe, pulled away or removed from, a feeling of an existential death. Remember, shame is an evolutionary emotion and protects us from being “kicked out” of our family or clan, for “socially inappropriate” behavior.

As children, we needed healthy doses of shame to help us conform to societal rules and feel a sense of connection and belonging to our family, our tribe. But, many of us come from family dynamics that either over-shamed and/or did not provide enough repair, and as a result we have difficulty feeling and moving through shame because it’s essentially saying, “I’m bad,” and “I have no worth.”

So, how do we as adults move through our shame? Here is a three-step process:

1. Honor it: Remember, it’s important that we honor our shame because it served us through our childhood development by keeping us alive. Shame is an emotional coping skill that we used to survive and relate to our most important early intimate relationships.

2. Know your shame triggers: Sometimes, the best way to know our triggers is when we are defending against them. According to
Brené Brown, she describes three “shame shields” that we use to protect ourselves from feeling shame. As adults, we’ve learned to shield ourselves from feeling the pain of shame. As you read through these three shields, ask yourself: “Who am I likely to use this shield with?” and “In what situation might I use it?”:

>> Overcompensating—moving toward people and continually putting our needs and sense of self before everyone else. Perfectionism, kissing up, gift giving, people pleasing, over-apologizing, fitting in, not holding others accountable for fear they may get mad, and inauthentic complimenting.

>> Avoidance—moving away from others by hiding, isolating, keeping secrets, ignoring, numbing out, dodging questions, denial, changing the subject, and disappearing into our own lives.

>> Shaming—moving against another with fighting and shaming. Sarcasm, blaming, anger, road rage, one-upping, judging, lashing out with later regret, slamming the door, contempt, and throwing things.

3. Repair and Reconnect: In moments when shame is felt by you or the other, there is a disconnection, so it’s important to acknowledge what is happening in that moment (refer to which shield is being used). It may also take time to acknowledge our shame in the moment, so space may be needed and repair can happen after-the-fact. But, best it happens while the shame remains, because repair and reconnection change the dynamic of shame experience to one of acceptance, being seen and valued. Repair may look like taking accountability for our part—our words and actions. And reconnection may look like affirming our love and value for the other.

In honor of Thích Nhất Hạnh:

“Understanding is the beginning of love.
If you can’t understand you cannot love.
When you understand yourself, you love yourself.”

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