Toxic shame

Shame has always fascinated me – I don’t know why but over my life I’ve heard quite a few teachings on shame from lots of different angles but until I had adopted children I don’t think I really understood the tremendous power it has to keep people locked down and just how the effects of shame seep into everything we do (or don’t do as the case may be). So I thought today I might give a little more insight into shame that I’ve just learnt very recently and am processing myself.

Shame’s intentions are good. The reason we have the emotion of shame is to help us to understand what we shouldn’t do as it’s bad for us and what we should do because it’s good for us. For example when you’re very young your Mum or Dad are telling you all day what not to do “don’t run into the road”, “keep away from the fire”, “be careful of the stairs” etc etc. The feeling we get when we are shouted at to stop those things is shame. We feel horrible in that moment and we don’t like the feeling so we try and not do the thing again that caused our parent to chastise us and give us that unpleasant feeling again. This whole process is called the socialisation process, and without it we wouldn’t learn how to be in the world.

However the important part of the socialisation process is that the parent repairs at the end of it and the relationship gets back on track. So once the child is out of danger the parent comforts them and says “I’m sorry for shouting but you can’t run into the road like that”, as a result child feels comforted and the horrible feeling goes away.

For children who don’t experience this process correctly they can be stuck in that horrible place of shame for far too long and the feeling then becomes toxic. They may be told off for basic needs such as needing the toilet, then wetting themselves then being shouted at again – the whole process is messed up and the child doesn’t learn to feel that shame feeling briefly and then come out of it again – they are stuck in excessive shame which gives them the clear message that THEY are bad – not the action they were doing but THEM.

What I came to realise this week, which I’ve never really noticed before is that when we are little shame is huge – it’s this massive horrible feeling but as we go through this socialisation process time and time again that shame feeling gets smaller and we move into understanding guilt. The bad feeling moves from us to feeling bad for someone else – I did something to someone else, I feel bad about it (guilt) and I want to do something to make it right with that person. That is how things should progress.

However for children who’ve experienced excessive times of shame the shame remains huge and the guilt doesn’t develop. So they don’t learn how to feel bad about what they do and how it impacts someone else. This was a revelation to me. It’s one of the areas I find most difficult is seeing my children do something to someone else and not feel any responsibility or regret for what they’ve done – I used to think this was just not caring but I can see that shame has a tighter grip then we think. The depth of the shame they feel is so deep that guilt is somewhere in the distance – so they say sorry because it’s what we tell them to do but it doesn’t feel genuine somehow – because they don’t feel it in the same way – to be sorry you have to first acknowledge that you did something wrong!

So how do they respond to this intense feeling of shame? Well there are the obvious signs – hiding, running away, lashing out. But there’s also lying about what they’ve done – you can have seen them do it and they still claim they didn’t. They then blame someone else “but she started it, it wasn’t my fault”. They can also minimise what they did “I didn’t hit him that hard”. Rage is something we see time and time again with children who have had a difficult childhood – the shame is so huge (the way they feel about themselves that they are bad, useless, worthless) that the rage overpowers them and they have to lash out.

So it’s one thing recognising shame but how do we help children deal with it?

Firstly the relationship you have with the child is key. The attunement before and after is very important. Make sure you repair as much as you can when things do go wrong. If a child feels that they are so bad and no-one wants to be around them then they can be stuck in that place for much longer. The old saying of look at the sin and not the sinner is right – try to see their behaviour as communicating something to you. When you focus on the behaviour it becomes very difficult to see the very frightened, anxious child beneath that needs to know they are accepted.

Try to be careful with the words you use with these children. When you over emphasise something they’ve done it can push them further into that place of shame. So language that makes them feel accepted is better –  if they struggle with anger then talking about it as a nasty, bad emotion makes them feel nasty and bad, whereas if you talk about it as something we all feel but need to find better ways to express it helps them to feel accepted – that they are not the worst person in the world or worse than that, the only person in the room who struggles with their temper.

Acceptance is a very powerful thing. To know that people truly accept you, warts and all is very liberating. For these children it’s even more so! Try and find ways to accept them and how they feel. When we try to reassure people too soon it feels more like dismissing their feelings or that we don’t really understand them. For example when you say to a friend, “I feel so ugly at the moment” and they come straight back with “no you’re not” you don’t really feel listened to and understood. It’s the same for these children when they say “what’s the point I’m rubbish at everything” they need to feel heard and validated. So try to stay with them for a while in that moment – what must it be like to feel that things are pointless – that I am pointless?

Finally remember above all that the behaviour they are displaying is communicating a need to you – the more you can be curious about what that need is and really try to understand that need, the more chance you have of finding ways to help them change their behaviour in the future.

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Nicola Marshall

With over 13 years working in personal development Nicola Marshall has attained numerous skills and a genuine care for others. She is a fully trained coach, adoptive parent as well as the founder of Brave Heart Education.
Nicola Marshall
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