We’ve established that shame can be both a powerful motivator while also operating without the effort of conscious thought. Something that can hold such significant sway over who we are and how we act deserves a deeper understanding of how it develops.
An Emotional Clutch
Shame, as with many other emotions and behaviors we’ve discussed, develops in childhood as we learn to regulate behaviors. Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell describe it as an emotional “clutch” that kicks in to redirect one’s interest in more acceptable behaviors. This makes sense when you think for a moment about how a child engaged in an unacceptable behavior responds to an adult’s glare. Oops – he’s caught! The child will get a slightly startled look on his face, the excitement fades, and he experiences a sinking feeling. He stops engaging in the activity, his body shrinks back, and finally he will turn his eyes away. In a normal situation, these reactions will not be big movements or dramatic; combined they are simply a pulling-in of energy and calming down, an internal correction.
This reaction occurs across cultures, so we know it is a part of the human experience and it has a purpose. This is the voice of conscience. It is nature’s way
of ensuring that humans can learn to live together in community. To live together successfully, it is necessary to learn the rules and norms of our communities.
The Importance of Re-connection
In order for shame to remain a mild feeling from which the child learns, there needs to be a re-connection between the adult and the child, and a reassurance that the child responded to the correction in a positive way. This creates a positive experience where the child learns what is appropriate behavior. Because the child’s parents or caretakers connect with him, he does not feel like a bad person. He learns that mistakes can be repaired. His confidence and sense of self worth increase because the child was able to respond and learn from the situation.
From Learning Experience to Shame
If the child is punished, lectured or scolded, what started as mild shame turns into confusion, fear, anger and hurt. The child is left feeling alone, misunderstood, defective and bad. He is left with a heavy feeling of being shameful. Repeating this lack of re-connection can lead a child to internal
ize theses emotions. If this happens enough the shame will grow into “toxic shame” which will follow them throughout life and flare up anytime he or she hits a bump in the road.
This level of intense shame develops within families that do not meet the needs of their children in a “good enough” manner. This can happen in a variety of ways. As we look at the conditions that cause mild shame to snowball into a intense, internalized message, it is easy to see how it develops in cases of abuse or neglect. However, the same can happen in non-abusive situations through non-verbal behaviors that we may not even give a second thought.
Unconscious Behaviors that Feed Shame
No parent is perfect and we all make mistakes. That said, let’s look at a few unintentional or unconscious behaviors that can also provide a fertile breeding ground for toxic shame in a child.
A parent’s depression, absence, irritability or indifference can create a lack of connection that leads to the feelings of shamefulness.
A parent who is consciously or unconsciously competitive will cause the child to feel inadequate or flawed.
Perhaps a parent demanded too much, expected the child to act older than he was, or to perform above their ability. When the child does not succeed, the situation is primed to create a sense of shame.
In cases where the parent was overwhelmed by their life circumstances, the child likely feels as though he is both the cause of the unhappiness and the person responsible to fix the problems. The child is doomed to fail, thereby solidifying there since of powerlessness and worthlessness. That is a recipe for shame.
I do not present this list to make you second-guess every interaction you ever had (or will have) with your child. Yes, children’s behavior can be overwhelming and frustrating. It is a parent’s job to withstand the energy and demands of a child, and to teach their children to regulate their feelings. That said, even the best parent will fail from time to time. The demands of parenthood will be more than they can manage. That will cause the parent to feel worthless, defective and ashamed.
The key is awareness. If the parent is unaware and unable to find a way to deal with these intolerable feelings, it often becomes the child’s fault. The shift occurs and rather than the child having a problem and needing help, they become bad for having a need. The child then feels disconnected, and considered himself a burden, someone who makes Mommy unhappy. The child feels bad for hurting Mommy and feels shame.
A child needs to feel loved and accepted by their parents. They need to be reassured that they are loved even when they make mistakes or make their parents angry. Without this kind of love and reassurance, toxic shame develops and can lead to a variety of difficulties in adult life.