In my last post we discussed toxic versus healthy shame. We also reflected on guilt and how it can either be healthy or unhealthy. We realize that a certain level of shame and guilt can be healthy if it affirms our humanity, helps us to learn our limits and affirms our values. However, as I encounter individuals who are dealing with many personal problems resulting from their parenting and the relationships for which they are responsible, I see how life-dominating the shame/guilt factor can be.
Note: By the way, I know that these posts are intense. That is because we are dealing with rather difficult situations and the harsh nature of violence in our country. Because I work within systems that see the tragedies of trauma, child abuse, family struggles and so much more, these realities hit hard and are very difficult to resolve, particularly when they impact children.
Shame: a topic that is so difficult to discuss
Many people who struggle with significant guilt and shame have crossed my path. As I think about them, I observe a pattern. Some predictable feelings and behaviors occur in their livesthat authenticate the impact of shame and guilt.
Because of my years of experience working with people and the systems meant to assist them, I cannot overstate the value of talking about the impact of shame/guilt. It is so important that we become aware of its cause, understand how it has damaged us and what steps we can take to deal with the resulting intense feelings and ramifications. Although most of us who have backgrounds that include shame do not turn to violence, the effect can still produce pain and cause us to struggle with insecurity, anxiety or anger.
How often have you heard, “Shame on you?”
I grew up in a world where the phrase often uttered was “shame on you!” When I heard that phrase as a child, it was not a good moment. One would simply hope that no additional consequences would occur and the incident (and associated feelings) would quietly go away. I felt in that moment that the best strategy was to move away from one’s accusers and hope for the best! (I always thought it was in my best interest not to be disciplined!)
Honestly, I do not remember severe shame in my life, but many people with whom I have spoken do recall being severely shamed. I have listened to stories of individuals who were caught in the trap of double-binds: whatever they did or said, they were severely criticized. Theirs was a no-win situation no matter what, and relentless verbal and/or physical abuse followed.
The “not good enough” principle
A situation like I just described that provides no escape or relief is difficult to bear for anyone, but particularly for children, who want to please their parents. A feeling of inescapability entraps children in significant fear and can become traumatic for some.
Further, the shame sends messages of the “not good enough principle:” whatever one does, it will never be good enough.
Unless we become aware of these messages and beliefs that have been seared into our neurology, we can find ourselves overachieving, overworking, being incredibly frustrated and angry at ourselves and anyone around us who is “underachieving.” These elusive and judgmental “don’t measure up” standards move life from one anxious place to the next, without reducing the underlying shame.
I have listened to countless people who have lived this legacy for decades and are so busy still trying to please their parents or major influencers that they have lost their sense of self and self-worth. I have even spoken with people struggling with their sense of failure who, all of a sudden, have realized they are unable to please their parents because their parents have passed away. How incredibly tragic!
How shame becomes transgenerational
Depending how intense a legacy one has–accompanied by individual temperament and other situational or personal factors–this sense of “not good enough” can become chronic. Once at this level, it leads to self-abasement and feelings of failure or worthlessness that can cause depression, anxiety, intense anger and the tendency to reenact what was done to us toward those that we have influence over at home, work, church or other places in our community. Then, the powerful impact of shame is easily passed on because it has become a core belief.
Awareness is the first step, then seek professional help
Okay, enough counseling for now…but if you or someone you know is struggling with this issue, then you, like me long for freedom for anyone shouldering this shame-based and controlling sense of inadequacy.
Living in such fear and insecurity is not healthy and causes so many life-dominating problems. It is time that we and our children, who live in the path of our own legacies, break from shame.
If this seems to be a problem in this life space for you or someone you care about, I urge you to process with someone who can truly give you safety, freedom and a way to deal with it. Life has so many challenges, and this is one that we can overcome, with some faith, hope, awareness, forgiveness, understanding and new perspective.
Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network