Guilt is about behavior (i.e.: I did something wrong), and shame is about personhood (i.e.: I am something wrong).
Shame, in its healthy form teaches one about personal limits, keeps one humble, and allows one to be human and make mistakes. Healthy shame has boundaries and encourages movement that accepts and honors those boundaries (Bradshaw, 2005).
Healthy shame helps one utilize energy effectively and prohibits the useless wasting of it on endeavors and goals which are out of bounds. In essence, healthy shame helps create a balanced, insightful identity in which one experiences the realities of life in coherence with one’s expectations of it.
Unhealthy shame is induced upon the individual via the culture, religion, and most importantly, the family. Unhealthy shame is not the result of trial and error, self-discovery, or curious wonderment. In unhealthy families, shame may be internalized by:
Abandonment (physical or emotional),
Abuse (sexual, physical, emotional),
Faulty attachment, and/or
The countless memories of shaming experiences which shape one’s life
Unhealthy shame gives one an illusion of control in an out of control situation. When growing up in an abusive, abandoning, or a dysfunctional environment, the developing child learns to believe that the abuse or dysfunction is the fault of their own. The child subconsciously concludes that by taking responsibility for the faulty behavior of the abuser, the child has the power to change it. This is the illusion of control.
Children do not have the cognitive ability or the emotional ego strength to conceptualize that the abuse is actually the fault of the abuser. Children are dependent on their caregivers for survival. It is developmentally implausible and unbearable for children to blame their caregivers. They are the very caregivers who amidst the abuse may intermittently provide life supporting basic needs.
To reiterate, the child internalizes projected shame, believing that something is inherently wrong with them, and therefore deserving of the maltreatment.
Subsequently, children try harder, behave better, becoming whatever it is they believe will change the current circumstances. They may tell themselves, “if I were lovable (or smarter, or prettier, or athletic, or more like my brother. . .) I will be more worthy and the abuse will stop.”
However, considering the child is not responsible for the abuse, these efforts to produce change are futile.
This process inevitably thwarts the development of a true identity. This pseudo- identity is like a chameleon. It changes colors to adapt to surroundings with a “reptilian” reflex aimed at ensuring its own survival. This reflexive state does not allow personhood to fully bloom and respond to life freely and genuinely. Life becomes about compulsively doing or being for others out of a deep seated fear of rejection and abandonment. The child has been conditioned to believe that the needs for love, attention, support, and connection can only be attained at the cost of a true self.
Clearly, unjustified, induced shame has an insidious effect on the developing self. Without insight and introspection, this shame may permeate the Adult Childs’ personal relationships in which the Adult Child will inadvertently take responsibility for a partner’s mishaps and behaviors. The childhood motto repeats itself, “if only I (fill in the blanks), my partner will stop, or my partner will love me…” The Adult Child is unconsciously reproducing the trauma (trauma repetition) from childhood in order to heal it once and for all.
And this too proves futile.
One must have tremendous courage and strength to reflect on past childhood abuse and truly feel what was repressed, denied, lost, or minimized. Through engaging these misplaced feelings comes healing and hope. This creates space for a new narrative to evolve in which unhealthy shame is replaced with life sustaining healthy shame. Facing the origins of induced shame is the first step to uncovering an authentic self.
Julie Discenza LMFT # 92632
Bradshaw, John. (2005). Healing the shame that binds you. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.