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The Shame Problem

Danica Joan January 17, 2022

While his mother talks to a neighbor outside the house, a two-year-old child explores the outdoors. He finds a special place nearby where he digs happily in the soft soil. He feels proud of his accomplishment. “Look at me,” he wants to tell the world. “Look at what I can do. I am good.”

“Just look at this mess!” says his mother with scorn. “Look at you. You are filthy dirty! Your clothes are ruined. I am disappointed in you. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”

The child experiences himself as very small. He drops his head and stares at the ground. He sees his dirty hands and clothes and begins to feel dirty inside. He believes there must be something very bad about him, something so bad he can never really be clean. He fears his mother’s disdain. He sees himself as defective and small.

The shame begins in very young children as an emotion that requires another person. As children we have three options for dealing with shame (1) Find a caring other to attach to us with love and approval, (2) try to avoid the shaming experience somehow, or, (3) comply with the shaming message. Since infants and children don’t always have an optimal attached parent (consider the mother in the example above) to pick them up and look into their distressed eyes with love and approval, they often avoid painful shame emotions with the defenses they can muster. Small children generally can’t self-regulate shame, in the absence of an attuned caregiver, they deal with it as best they can do using their magical worldviews, emergent memory capacities, and immature self defenses. A rather typical child’s defense is their experience of shame almost immediately moving through humiliation to rage (a meltdown). The parasympathetic collapse of shame, or the withdrawal into on unacceptibility, is avoided by stimulating the sympathetic rush of rage which feels more powerful and tolerable. Here lies the problem of shame and anger management. Shame is a tricky emotion.

Emotions regulate and influence everything we think or do including our moods, our sympathetic/parasympathetic autonomic balance, our beliefs, and our social relationships. If we are relaxed, wide open, and accepting, our emotions will naturally flow with our purpose of the moment. Emotion that is defensively repressed, amplified, or forbidden cannot easily flow back into a healthy rhythm of harmony and needs firm internal guidance, or self-regulation.

One of the problems with shame is that we don’t develop the neural brain structures to be able to process it with matures self-awareness until we are at the very least adolescent. In particular, around 11 we just begin to be able to handle competing concepts at the same time. We just began to have the capacity to consider that a shame is an unpleasant experience that indicates we have violated an internal sense of how we should be, and that we need to talk to write the discomfort, all while accepting ourselves as imperfect but lovable beans.

Younger children’s brains have difficulty tolerating any discomfort such a ‘shame emotions’, much less looking for guidance and wisdom in such discomfort, this means everybody’s initial preparation in dealing with shame has aspects of trying to avoid the experience, and certain forms of more mature processing can be learned when we are more self-aware.