Shame is internalized more than it is learned. It evolves from a chronically unmet need, into a false belief, into an altered self-image. This will develop in uniquely different ways in the lives of individuals who have been exposed to the very same environment. For some, it may create internalized shame that is acted out through fear, depression, anxiety, drug abuse, self-harm, codependency, or isolation. For others, it may contribute to hyper-drivenness, control, perfectionism, overachieving, rule-following, or fearlessness. Although the second group of characteristics appear much more “socially acceptable,” both groups are responding to the same internalized shame messages and are therefore equally shame based.
What Does Shaming Look Like?
No one is born shamed. It is a learned emotion, beginning at a very early age. Although human beings are born with a capacity to experience shame, the propensity to becoming shamed is learned. This means that wherever there is shame there must also be a shamer. Children learn to be ashamed of themselves because someone of significance in their lives imposes shame upon them. And their response will be entirely unique dependent upon the needs of their inborn, God-given temperament.
Shame messages are more powerful when they come from people whom we are closest to, people we love and admire, and individuals God appointed as our primary caregivers. This is why parents’ use of shaming has the deepest effects on children. Secondarily though, shame messages from older siblings, teachers, coaches, pastors, and peers can also create wounding of the child’s self-image (identity). Although every one of us encounters shame messages in life, the ones we experience in childhood have the deepest effect on us and are virtually impossible to erase.
“Shame is different from other feelings such as embarrassment or nervousness because shame makes the individual feel that he or she is not acceptable or worthy as a human,” says psychologist Dr. Carla Manly. Shaming implies that the child is wrong for perceiving, feeling, wanting, or needing something. This often occurs not only through others’ spoken words, but also by facial responses, body language, physical consequences, removal of approval, physical absence, and a long list of others. The point is, shaming oftentimes occurs when the “shamer” is not even aware they’ve done it, because shaming isn’t merely something they do. It is something they are.
Brene` Brown, best-selling author, professor, and lecturer, has spent her entire professional career performing research on the topic of shame. In a recent posting on her blog, Brene` spoke of shame in this way:
“The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. Shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. The fear of disconnection can actually make us dangerous. I believe that if we want meaningful, lasting change, we need to get clear on the differences between shame and guilt and call for an end to the use of shame as a tool for change. That also means moving away from labeling of people.”
Remember, we duplicate who we are. And we base who we are on how we perceive ourself. We may pride ourselves in who we perceive ourselves to be, even if that identity has been built upon a myriad of shame messages and false beliefs and is toxic in the lives of others. Nearly every week in my counseling practice I hear a client say, “I’m just made that way” or “That’s just how I was raised.” Is it really ok to rest on that, with little motivation to become anything different?
We must learn to see others’ hurts not through our own lens, but through the lens of how we are impacting the wellbeing of their soul and spirit.
Subtle Shaming Messages
John Bradshaw, in his book Bradshaw On the Family, offers an understanding of five of the most subtle, yet damaging, aspects of shaming that occur in American families. These are referred to as the “Five Freedoms.” Affirmation of these freedoms moves a child toward full self-acceptance and the ability to begin integrating the complexities of life. Personal power and self-worth results from such freedoms. All the person’s energy is available to interact with the world and establish healthy, meaningful relationships.
The absence of these freedoms in a child’s life tragically results in a host of shame-based traits, including issues with trust, intimacy, confidence, responsibility, and countless more.
As I discussed in great detail in Chapter 2, shame is not necessarily a result of hurtful or demeaning things done to a child. Rather, it is the child’s inward response to the chronic (ongoing) absence of something that was essential and developmental to their emotional well-being. Shaming occurs when any or all of these five fundamental needs are overlooked.
- The power to see and hear what is here
- The power to say what you feel and think
- The power to feel what you feel
- The power to ask for what you want
- The power to take risks on your own behalf
Commonly when I am working with an adult in our counseling practice, they will argue that they couldn’t have internalized toxic shame because they came from a healthy family with wonderful parents. They’ve never experienced a traumatic event in their life, especially during childhood. Undoubtedly, it is difficult to comprehend how deeply internalized shame might occur within an environment that by all standards seems healthy.
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