We are a collectivist society, which means that we strictly do things as part of society and according to the norms of society. We only understand and accept doing things ‘within’ and ‘for’ familial/community structures. Our generations have been brought up codependently and so we understand and sometimes confuse co-dependency as care, concern and love.
We reproduce children with more of an intention for them to grow up and take care of us in our old-age and less of intention of reproducing and upbringing a wholesome individual into this world.
Now on the basis of these two truthful facts, that are, a child is born completely dependent for their primary needs on their caregivers. And, a child is born with the complete anatomical and neural package to experience emotions, gifted to us by evolution, let us understand when and where shame starts to develop.
Shame as an emotion can by experienced in 2 ways – Healthy and chronic/toxic shame.
Healthy shame is demanded to be experienced as a medium to learn things in the world that will protect us from harming ourselves. This is what is needed to teach children what is right from wrong, to teach proper safety. But as a society, most parents lack in how to deliver this teaching through healthy way.
This can be understood by a most common example of a child crawling/approaching towards an electrical appliance/switch and going to touch it at a relative’s place, and as parents, if they don’t stern enough while teaching “don’t do that”, child will not be able to learn. So, in order to create the environment of good teaching, teaching right from wrong, boundaries – as in what a child has to learn to do to stay safe and not harm himself/herself along the way, this early healthy shame is essential. It means on getting that assertive command (not shouting or scolding), but assertive and loud enough to alert the child, to feel the emotion, viscerally in their entire body so as to make sense of the command, and remember it. That is “to not touch that electric switch ever again”. This has to happen once or twice to be effective. Once or twice is enough for the child to feel that emotion induced learning in their body, so as to remember it.
Therefore, this feeling which ensures the child by alerting about his/her safety is called “shame” and not correction or compassionate teaching, because they have to “feel it” that they have “done something bad or something that should not happen again”.
The formula is to deliver the shaming dialogue followed with the connection. If the message is strong and directive, the child may get upset, feel fearful or cry, and this is the point where the parent’s role can convert the shaming into healthy or toxic.
If the child is comforted with empathy, love, connection and kind words “It’s okay baby. I know that you enjoy playing with that switch, but it may hurt/shock you, therefore we have to stay away from it. Come sit here with us for now and we’ll play with your toys when we go back home”. It’s a bit complex as it’s more about the tone and a balance of warmth and assertiveness in healthy shaming.
Those who suffer from a lot of mental illness, addiction, depression, anxiety, often there was upbringing with a lot of chronic toxic shame. Here, parents use control and humiliation to control behaviour. In the same example, if a parent comes and scold the child in front of all the relatives, harshly saying “what’s matter with you?! Don’t you understand you are not supposed to touch that?” This kind of toxic sharp energy with stabbing words can filled child’s body with emotion of fear and feeling of being stupid, not smart enough and worthless.
The same happens when parents use way of threat to control their behaviour – for example – how parents reward or threat children on condition of getting grades. The narrative “If you don’t get XYZ marks, you will not get this” or comparing child with their siblings and friends “Look at your elder/younger sibling behaving so nicely. Learn from them.” This itself is enough to reinforce feeling or worthlessness in child, because for child, withholding rewards is equal to withholding your love. Even intention of trying to teach a child about discipline and good behaviour, parent’s tone and words can reverse the game from confidence to shame.
Sometimes parents even favour one child over another, and this too can bring feelings of toxic shame in their identity and behaviour. They may be do well in life and thrive in their career, and come out as strong and ambitious personalities, but deep inside, these people are fighting the intrinsic toxic shame and guarding themselves with success.
The very own “Sharma Ji ka beta” analogy in Indian households is classic example of developing chronic shame in one’s mind and body.
Why do we express shame?
When we have unresolved trauma, we are always attempting to gain external validation. We put all our effort from our heart and soul to chase this through money, power, relationships, accomplishments. And sometimes even after that we end up feeling lonely or depressed when these things don’t fill the void.
Our true need is to be seen, heard and uniquely expressed – basically “to be accepted as we are”. These are the things all of us needed in our childhood and spend our adult lives still seeking in our adulthood due to emotional inadequacy in fulfilment of our childhood needs.
Therefore, shame can be felt by any person at any point of time as it is majorly about acceptance at micro and macro level.
- Acceptance from interpersonal relationships at micro level; such as being shamed, as a child, by parents for not getting as good grades like your sibling, for not living up to expectations of parents in terms of decisions regarding career or marriage, or being shamed as “not good enough wife/daughter-in-law” by your partner/in-laws.
- Acceptance from society, at macro level; such as being shamed for touching an electric switch in front of relatives, or in class in front of classmates by a teacher, or at in any public gathering at work before entire staff.
We become unconscious of our coping mechanisms, as they were adapted in our early years, so we end up feeling this is who we are: our personality.
Shame v/s Guilt
Guilt and shame seem like same because in both cases we feel we have done something wrong; guilt is more about an advanced/cerebral and mind-based emotion. Guilt comes when we are rationally and logically aware of something wrong that we did and consciously accept our fault. For example, if you, by mistake, break your best friends’ favourite mug while taking out a cup from the shelf, you may feel bad and definitely apologise, and may even buy a new mug for her. Guilt is more of empathy oriented.
But, if you have a history of being chronically shamed/bullied by caregivers or near ones (friends in school) in past or while growing up for not being able to do things right or for not being a good/perfect/desirable child, then this same mug breaking incident may induce a body-based emotion and feel of uneasiness as if you did something really bad to your friend and you feel scared or fear in mind and body that she may humiliate or blame you as you have now upset her. So, shame is more body-based emotion built-up through multiple experiences of unacceptance/disregard/humiliation for who we are or what we did/didn’t do, by caregivers or others. Shame is more fear oriented.
How to deal?
Identify the roots and causes of shame. It so happens that all of us most of our lives grow up in shame in some or the other way – be it being mocked for our skin colour, weight or academic performance. All these years, the built-up experience gets so intense and deeply installed that it needs to be moved. The antidote of toxic shame is “Healthy Aggression” – being able to find our ability to aggress, to be forceful with some amount of power and strength. We need to cultivate an amount of healthy strength in our system to break out of the lifetime of physiological set of chronic shame. In order to break the ugly physiological experience of being shamed such as “you are not good enough, you cannot do it”, we need to fight this stuck emotion by becoming aware of our resistances and defensive behaviours in our personalities that have helped unhealthily coping all this while and we need to sense and feel the quality of being aggressive with life, in a positive way, in our body. This means to find strength in your vulnerability, open up about your wounds in a safe space and own up to them. Own up to the things or qualities for which you have been shamed for.
It will require counselling or therapy. If you do not not heal from this physiologically stuck experience of shame, you will keep on attracting it in our life experiences and repetitive narratives. You may find yourself in self-loathing, self-sabotaging, low self-esteem, self-hate, find faults within self, our inner voice will become self-critical, which eventually builds up into depression and internalised anger.
Things all human beings want
o To be witnessed as they are, without judgement, unsolicited advice or attempting to control
o To hear about the qualities that make them unique, lovable, powerful
o To be free to share their dark side that brings shame and let it be met by acceptance
o To connect with other from soul rather than ego
o To be seen as their highest self, and not identified through their emotionally charged traits
Therapy is the space that will provide you with insights of moments that developed shame and will teach you and allow you to practise fully expressing yourself. It’s a long, very committing journey. Fighting and erasing the imprints of toxic shame is like heavy weightlifting. It’s really hard in the beginning but will give long lasting results of a better, loving and expanded living experience.
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