Why We Need To Learn Healthy Shame In Childhood: It Makes Us Human

Photo Credit: Larm Rmah

Shame is a big topic because it means so much to all of us. We all carry it and it is the major factor in how we see ourselves, the world and relationships. We do our best to hide it and we cover it up with other emotions and feelings. It has an effect on how we interact with others and it often drives the dysfunction in our relationships. We find it hard to recognize because, as a child, we thought we were wrong when we felt shame around our caregivers and this made us doubt our ability to survive. We continue to hide it when we reach adulthood.

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Once again, we come back to the environment we grew up in for the reasons. As my recent post on shame explained, we acquire it via interaction with parents and their parenting style at an age when we cannot challenge it or see it for what it is, other people’s shame being projected. Parents use shame-based parenting to control children and as such not only control their behaviour but have an effect on their personality too. The expectations around achievement can be very high, shame is used when these unmanageable targets cannot be met and the child grows into adulthood believing that he/she is not allowed to fail, does not recognize failure or denies that failure has occurred.

A good example of this can be seen with Donald Trump in the White House. While it is clear to all that he has lost, he just cannot accept that he is not the winner but is trying to use all means possible to convince himself that he has not lost. He just cannot accept defeat as part of his make-up and this probably derives from messages received as a child. While we may speculate that toxic shame is behind this, Trump in fact feels no shame in his pursuit of personal glory. Whatever shame he felt, has been long locked away, deep in his psyche and covered up with other feelings and thoughts and he has no idea of his limits or the consequences of this. As part of a populist movement that has taken hold globally, he is very much “me” and not “we”. Those types of individual rarely feel shame, healthy or toxic as they are more likely to be narcissist.

We talk much of toxic shame, that unbelievably overwhelming feeling that when triggered usually brings a physical and emotional response. However, we talk less of healthy shame which can become our internal conscience and set limits on our behaviour. We need this to stop us feeling all powerful (Trump). It also helps us to stay human and relate to other humans and the human experience. The development of healthy shame helps us to know we are not God-like and we will make mistakes, experience failure and need to be humble at some point. When we know our natural limits, we direct our energy within those limits. It helps us to deal with the inevitable trials and tribulations that we will face as we go through childhood. As with the example of Trump, who believes he has ultimate power, we do not spend our energy on unmanageable tasks and fantasy thinking.

Once again, it often goes wrong in childhood where children who naturally exhibit age appropriate healthy shame are misunderstood and disciplined in such cases. John Bradshaw in “Healing The Shame That Binds Us” looks at the subject of healthy shame and how it is misunderstood by parents. He describes shame as healthy or toxic and likens it to good and bad cholesterol. He states that a child’s natural development of healthy shame is hampered by toxic shame acquired by parenting styles and attempts to curtail natural behaviour.

The development of healthy shame starts with the establishment of trust between mother and child in the first six months. A baby will experience shame when it sees an unfamiliar face and the trust built will counter that. If trust is not there, the feeling of shame will endure and develop. A toddler who has established a firm base of trust in her parents will see the world as limitless when she can walk and touch. This brings forward the “terrible two’s” for many parents. At this time, children need firm boundaries to show them that their world has limits and will feel healthy shame by, for example, putting their hands over their eyes. This shows they know limits have been crossed. Children at this stage are often punished for being rebellious or difficult or, as in one comment I heard, purposely making life difficult for the parents.

Children will face many trials as they develop into adults. Puberty, conformity to peer groups, self-identity, vulnerability, first sexual feelings, feelings of love and attachment will all go easier if healthy shame has been recognized and fostered by parents. This takes a level of understanding to help a child through. It takes awareness to help a child see that feelings of embarrassment, inferiority and guilt can help a child grow. Too often, parents, in their attempts to push their children forward (often for the parent‘s purposes) bring toxic shame to these subjects in terms of expectations and failing to separate behaviour from the child itself, instead of seeing it as a learning event.

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