At Lakeside, we consistently find internalized shame directly connected with trauma, fear, anxiety and low self-esteem in children. These children do not experience healthy guilt. Instead, the overwhelming shame that these children feel is accompanied by a sense of complete inadequacy. As a result of this fog of shame, these children can get into untenable situations of abuse and further trauma because, at heart, their shame has created the belief that they deserve the abuse they are about to receive. For this reason we need to not shame our children.
How does shame endanger our children?
Shame can be defined as a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace. It is a condition of disgrace or dishonor and occurs when someone brings dishonor, disgrace or condemnation to himself or herself or to his or her family.
Eric Erikson determined that the very young child first experiences a developmental phase in which he or she develops either self-trust or self-mistrust of the world around him or her based on how much his or her needs are met with sufficient predictability. The child then moves to the next developmental phase in which the task is to gain a sense of autonomy versus to become filled with shame and doubt. It is much easier for a child to gain that sense of autonomy in the environment where he or she has experienced adequate degrees of trustworthy responses.
Shame interferes with healthy development
“Shame is a fear-based internal state of being, accompanied by beliefs of being unworthy and basically unlovable. Shame is a primary emotion that conjures up brief, intense painful feelings and a fundamental sense of inadequacy. Shame experiences bring forth a sense of vulnerability to others. When parents use shame as their primary socialization tool, children spend too much time feeling anxious, dysregulated, and fearing for their safety. When these children grow up, they can usually find criticism, rejection, and abandonment in every interaction. Their lives are marked by a chronic anxiety, exhaustion, depression, and a losing struggle to achieve perfection.” [p. 235]
Dr. Louis Cozolino states that, “Because shame is neurobiologically toxic for older infants… early preverbal experiences can have lifelong effects. Prolonged shame states early in life can result in permanently dysregulated autonomic functioning and heightened beliefs of ‘I am a failure’ and ‘I am bad’ which are a threat to the integrity of the self. This perceived deficit of being bad is so humiliating and disgraceful that there is a need to protect and hide the flawed self from others. Fears of being vulnerable, found out, exposed and further humiliated are paramount. Feelings of shame shut people down so that they can distance from the internal painful state of hopelessness.
Shame messages are toxic to those we love
It is clear from our family of experts that shame can be very toxic. Shame often leads us to believe that its messages are true, and when it is internalized, it affects what we believe about ourselves while it impacts our everyday relationships in powerful ways.
Imagine if you believed some of these messages about yourself:
- “I am bad.”
- “I am worthless.”
- “I do not deserve to be loved.”
- “I do not deserve to be kept safe.”
- “Other people are more important than I am and their needs are more important than my needs.
- “I am a freak.”
- “If people only knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me/they would hate me/they would distrust me/they would avoid me.”
- “I do not have the same rights as other people.”
- “I deserve to be used by others.”
- “I am a disappointment to…
- If we would believe these messages to the point that they identify who we are, a healthy self-perception and ability to live a controlled and confident life would be greatly diminished. The devaluation of self would occur largely because of the power of shame and its daily impact.
Understanding the complexity of the impact of shame
It will be important that we continue to understand this issue even more. We need to find new ways to address the needs and behaviors of our children without using life-dominating, destructive shame.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
Information taken from Deepening Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008. All rights reserved. Licensed materials.