Shame and Guilt in Abandonment Issues
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Psychoanalysts trace an extreme sense of shame to an early childhood in which parents did not respond with empathy and attention to the child’s strivings to show his competence. Because the child feels that his efforts do not matter to the parent, he grows up feeling inferior and unlovable. “A child’s sense of not being affirmed or supported in his strivings leaves him feeling the world does not respond to him at all,” said Andrew Morrison, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. “To have such an unmet need for support and response is in itself a source of shame. For such people in adulthood, just to feel anything other than self- sufficiency — a need for support, for attention, for physical contact — is a source of shame,” Dr. Morrison said.
Shaming as a Child Discipline Technique: Name Calling, Belittling, Swearing, Verbal Abuse and Guilt-Inducing
Dysfunctional families are shame based. Parents do to their children what was done to them. That is what they know. Parents use shaming tactics when they feel overwhelmed, irritated or frustrated. Without educating themselves on how to do constructive parenting and restraining from impulsive angry reactions, they pass the energetic pattern of shame down through the generations. Shaming and blaming may work to stop the misbehavior temporarily but unfortunately the costs to the child’s self-esteem if tremendous.
Criticizing gives children a negative image about their selves rather than giving them a message about their misbehavior and what to do differently. Shaming makes the child wrong for being who they are or for having normal feelings or wanting or needing something. It happens in many families. A survey of Canadian schoolchildren showed that only four percent of the children had not been the targets of parent’s statements that were rejecting, demeaning, frightening, criticizing or insulting. Here are some statements that contribute to a child’s feeling insecure and abandoned.
- Moralizing: “Grow up! Stop acting like a spoiled brat. You are bad.”
- The gender-based expectation to not be a sissy: “Big boys don’t cry. Don’t be a sissy!’
- The competency-based expectation: “Stop acting like a baby. You’re hopeless!”
- Unfair comparisons: “Why can’t you be more like your sister? None of the other kids act like you do.”
- Parental self-absorbed histrionics: “You will be the death of me. I wish you were never born.”
- Non-verbal messages of shame: Looks of disgust, eye rolling and contempt.
Babies are not born ashamed. Harsh, critical parental behavior produces shame-prone children. Parental withdrawal, rejection or favoritism of a sibling cause deep fears of abandonment. Parental high expectations of behavior, criticism and disapproval for failure create shame. Parental humiliation and punishment for failure or for distress or crying creates the need to hide vulnerability. The child feels that he must be really bad or his parents would love him. Shaming and blaming set the child up for feelings of abandonment and self-hatred.
Sensitive children are more vulnerable to shaming messages than those who have learned to block their emotions as a protective defense. Nevertheless, the shame remains deep in even those who appear not to be affected by it. Children are most affected by shame from the people they are closest to-parents, siblings, relatives and teachers.
Children need to be validated for who they are as beings and not for what they can do for a parent. If a child is not heard but dismissed or put down, his emotional needs are dismissed and they learn that they are not important and they learn to reject their own needs. Shaming stops a child’s creativity and curiosity. It creates a feeling of powerlessness to act, as the child fears risking and making mistakes. They grow up feeling unimportant. They feel dismissed and diminished. They fear being humiliated and being exposed again.
Shame feelings are a threat to the integrity of the self. They keep us caught in fear of being found out by others. The perceived deficit is so humiliating that the person goes to all lengths to hide the flawed self. And it gets stuck and put away somewhere deep within. Shame does not have a release valve like tears for sadness or an explosion for anger that helps let it go.
The trauma of physical and sexual abuse imprints major feelings of being devalued and unworthy in the victim. The sexual energy of shame of others is contagious and can be passed from one individual to another. Induced causes of shame by others include a betrayal by others and a broken trust through physical domination.
Patterns of dysfunctional behavior in a person’s life usually indicate a strong internal shame core. Shame is the shaper of symptoms. Fear of feeling the shameful feelings, the person shuts down, dissociates, gets angry or collapses in despair.
Engaging in excessive use of alcohol, substances and addictive behavior may be an indicator of shame. Engaging in behaviors that society frowns upon creates more shame. Repressed shame leads to substituting more acceptable emotions such as anger, depression and anxiety to reduce the internal tension. Other defenses of shame include macho behavior, intellectualization and shutting down feelings. Controlling others, bullying, blaming, criticizing or feeling superior to others, are other common defenses against feeling ashamed. Lack of intimacy and connection to others indicates a lack of trust.
And yes, we can shame ourselves. Self-induced antecedents of shame include engaging in morally inappropriate behavior and experiencing public humiliation. Worrying what others think, fears of public failure and social disapproval lead to fears of rejection and abandonment. It leads to a life narrowing and a fear of taking risks.
Not all shame is bad. We should feel ashamed when we do something really bad. John Bradshaw, in his classic book Healing The Shame that Binds You, says that healthy shame functions in our society to set social rules and expectations to put the brakes on those who flaunt moral tradition.
Guilt says, “I did something wrong.”
Guilt is different from shame although they are connected. Guilt is an emotion from the conscience that comes up when we know that we did something wrong and need brakes put on a behavior. Violation of societies’ values around sexual and aggressive behavior, issues around bathroom functions care, and being different and looked down upon by others are common causes of guilt. Guilt says, “I did something bad. I must feel bad. What I did was not good for me.”
Guilt is about a specific action; shame is about the overall self. Shame says, “I am bad.” The shame core builds up with many events of guilt. Guilt and shame lead to the global belief of, “I am unworthy. I am unlovable.”
Repressed shame and guilt cause a lack of trust of others and a deep breach or separation from others and the real self. At some point in an individual’s life, the old defenses no longer work. Shame comes up big time. The person’s life crashes around him. Hitting bottom may prompt him to seek psychological help.
Shame is the Shaper of Symptoms but It is Also the Way Home
One purpose of these two negative emotions is to help us look at those aspects of ourselves that are incongruent with our deepest values to give the opportunity for learning and change.
Guilt and shame can be released thorough confession and processing the original painful experiences. The repressed, uncomfortable feeling must be accessed and worked through to release the shame energies. The original feelings must be re-experienced and reframed to allow the shift of the shame energy.
The motivated person can learn to become a detective on his own emotions and behavior. He can learn detachment and become an observer of his own internal state of shame by choosing not to shut down the painful feelings but to stay present and learn from them.
The release of the deep feelings of vulnerability, fear and humiliation is best done in an altered state of consciousness. The shame reduction work must be experiential; it cannot be released on an intellectual level. One way to decrease the emotions around an event is to laugh at it. Laughter about one’s predicament helps shift shame energies.
Understanding how shame works helps release it. The cleaning out of the global belief of “I am bad” takes time and exploration but it can be done with a therapist who understands the process of shame release and can stay present with unconditional love.
The core negative beliefs of “I am a bad person. I am not safe. I will be rejected because I am unworthy. I will be abandoned.” can be worked though. When shame release work is combined in therapy with learning to speak up and say no, to state boundaries and to share feelings, self-esteem zooms upward.
The truth is that you are a beautiful person who was shamed as a child and your body incorporated that shame. You are more than your physical body. You are much, much more than your painful emotions. You are essence longing to return to your true self. Your integrity and deep understanding can be brought forward to give a different understanding of the early painful experiences that caused shame.
Turning the shame over to something greater than oneself can negate those global beliefs of unworthiness. Touching into the higher aspects of oneself can elevate the person to knowing that he is worthy of being loved.
The newer mind/body approaches are helpful to reach into the deepest parts of the psyche that holds the difficult emotions and the beliefs that surround them. Core beliefs about not feeling worthy, deserving, lovable or safe can be mitigated through using the Energy Psychology approaches.
Collarbone Breathing is an important technique that can break into these devastating beliefs at a deep level. Do a YouTube search for several of these videos and tap along with the therapist who demonstrates the approach. Learning to do several of the Energy Psychology techniques on yourself will help balance your energy and break into any underlying beliefs about feeling deserted that foster insecurity in relationships.
Read John Bradshaw’s classic book, Healing The Shame that Binds You. Whenever you find a passage that apples to you or you feel triggered by what he is saying, breathe deeply and tap all over your body briskly as you recognize the shame feelings left inside of you. Shame can be addressed again and again with techniques that incorporate body, mind and spirit.