Shame is an emotion that affects everything we do and identifying and dealing with it is very difficult at times, even if we recognize our issues as shame based. Most people will attempt to hide their shame with secondary emotions like anger or sadness. We also attack others or shut down as a tactic to avoid facing shame and its consequences. I have mentioned in other posts that if parents do not help their children navigate developmental phases and recognize opportunities to show their children the positive effects of healthy shame, then toxic shame will be acquired. Healthy shame is essential if we are to know our limits as humans and is how we learn the consequences of not having limits or boundaries.
Below, I describe four examples of healthy shame that when dealt with properly, can help us to understand that these issues are a normal part of growing up. Too often, we are left alone to deal with these things, allowing us to attach the dysfunction that is often associated with them onto us as people, creating toxic shame.
Unrequited Love Anyone who has ever had strong feelings for another person will know how devastating it can be to be rejected or having the realisation that their feelings aren‘t reciprocated. This can be shaming and humiliating. Left alone with these feelings, we can transfer them onto us as people, creating the impression in our minds that we are not good enough because of the rejection. We would need to be told (if we care to share), that this is a normal part of growing up and rejection is something we will face often in our lives. It helps us to realise that there are people who we are attracted to and there are others we are not. It teaches resilience and the idea that not everything we do will be successful. The issue lies in the interpersonal bond formed early on with our mothers.
This was tested in the “Still Face Experiment,” where mothers were asked to interact with their babies by smiling and talking to them. Then, after a while they were asked not to react and ignore their baby. The baby in most cases, experienced distress when trying to attract their mother‘s attention. The mother’s lack of empathy leads the baby to feel something like shame. This can happen in real life if a mother is unable to mirror their baby’s emotions because of depression, or being overwhelmed by what’s going on in their own life. The results were summed up as follows:
If that baby’s experience were to be repeated, if the attachment relationship failed to develop normally and the mother consistently fell short on an empathic level, it would deform the baby’s developing self and lead to a kind of structural affliction that can be referred to as basic shame,”
Simply put, the interpersonal bond that defines trust and security in relationships and ultimately Self, would not properly form.
Unwanted Exposure. We will all suffer some form of embarrassment as we grow up. This can come from what is termed as unwanted exposure to shame. It could be from being called out for a mistake in front of others, someone walking in on you in private moments, etc. If it is short-lived, embarrassment is a healthy concept and as with all aspects of healthy shame, teaches us our limits as humans. If we do not feel we can express it, it can turn into toxic shame about ourselves. Various studies state that embarrassment is an essential factor in keeping to the limits of social norms and that people who are able to feel and express embarrassment are seen as more trustworthy, honest and committed. Research work in the 1950’s by Erving Goffman, an influential sociologist, argued that:
Embarrassment is a way of signaling someone’s concern about social norms and a commitment to following them. Essentially, your embarrassment tells the world “this isn’t something I would normally do, and I won’t do it again if I have any choice in the matter.”
In terms of child development, embarrassment is often linked to shame when growing children are not given guidance on such issues as their growing bodies or curiosity around sexuality and masturbation.
Disappointed Expectation. We often hear cliche statements looking at the value of failure in learning lessons. Not everything we do in life will work and success is never guaranteed. In a healthy sense, it keeps us focused on the parts of our life that have a greater chance of coming to fruition. It sets healthy limits on our ambitions. When someone takes the failure personally or factors in their personality as a reason for it, then toxic shame will result. Disappointment of expectations taken the right way will help us to realise the following:
- Disappointment will help us focus on our strengths and re-evaluate our path if needed.
- Disappointment will help us see that our expectations are often unrealistic and driven by subconscious forces.
- Disappointment teaches us to use the tools needed to move forward.
- Disappointment teaches us patience and resilience.
- Disappointment tells us we had a passion for something and assessed correctly will provide opportunities.
- Disappointment reminds us that there are limits to our human endeavour.
Exclusion. As we enter a certain phase of development, when we see peers as more important than our parents, we will probably face exclusion from groups for the first time. For some, this will mirror experiences already had in the family setting. In family theory, members take on roles that are assigned or assumed. One of these roles is the one of “scapegoat“, that is a member who is excluded and suffers from the projection of dysfunction from all others. It is our desire to fit in and be accepted and we will often adapt our behaviour and mirror the group leaders to make this easier. It doesn’t always work and we will be accepted in some groups and excluded from others. We place a lot of value on being liked and not feeling like an outsider, so when something threatens that, we can take it pretty hard, often feeling it is to do with us and we take it personally. Parents often brush this away and we are left with the feelings of shame and isolation.
Peer rejection involving toxic shame can harbour low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and a feeling that rejection is what will be faced in society generally. If severe bullying is associated with peer rejection, it can be devastating to the growing mind. However, handled correctly by parents, peer rejection can be fleeting and children can be taught healthy coping mechanisms and expectation regulation, while reducing the toxic shame element. Parents will play an important role in helping their children to face the pain of rejection and parental intervention needs to be the following:
Acknowledgement. As a parent, downplaying the rejection or brushing it off will only intensify the intense feelings held by the child. Helping the child to label the emotions associated with rejection is a good start. Avoid looking at the issue from personal experience.
Remain Calm. If a parent starts to rage about the rejection or vows to fix it, it will increase the stress and anxiety felt by the child. Staying calm and objective and explaining the various factors around rejection will help.
Connect. Helping your child to cope with peer rejection gives the chance to connect with them. They need empathy and compassion and emotional honesty, not directions and advice.
Examine Thoughts. Helping your child to understand the thought process behind their feelings can help them label and regulate them. Helping your child to see that it is not their thoughts but how they choose to see and act on them will help develop coping skills.
Toxic shame acquired by a child can be excruciating, and can be one reason why people grow up with destructive personality traits such as narcissism and codependency. However, healthy shame is also beneficial to our survival in many ways. For example, children are curious and want to explore. While this is educational, it can also be dangerous to be too interested in unfamiliar places and people. Parents have to set the limits.
Nobody’s childhood is perfect, and people often develop pockets of shame where our parents let us down in important ways. This will be the case even in good or “ok“ childhoods and of course, the acquiring of toxic shame is guaranteed in abusive or neglectful situations. It proves that the role of parents and the parenting style adopted is absolutely crucial to a child‘s development.