It's your job to nurture their tender egos as they age.
While guilt is about actions, the emotion caused by our disobedience to rules we deeply believe in (even when they're self-destructive!); shame is about our IDENTITY — about who we are, fundamentally — it says that our very essence is bad, unlovable, unacceptable, and therefore requires elimination. Shame makes us want to hide, self-isolate, not talk, live invisibly, and sometimes even makes us wish we were dead! The pain of shame is so great and the conviction that we're un-redeemable is so deep (not worth saving), that it eliminates hope. So many wonder, "why bother even trying?"
Instead we, sometimes, choose to overcompensate by out-doing, controlling, shaming others, acting superior, knowing "everything," or never showing "weakness"… ie. grandiosity.
Shame ties to our needs, rather than our actions.
More specifically, it links to each need we had as a child which was wrongfully neglected, punished and made fun of. If you think about how many needs children have and how many of them were not met at all (or met with abuse) then you can imagine how huge our shame quotient is!
By the way, most people focus on the need for love as basic and while this is crucial, even more basic is the need for safety! A person can't begin to take in love — even if it’s available — if they're terrified.
Children admire, even idealize their parents when they're quite small. They need to do this in order to feel safe, to know they can rely on these people's competence and availability for them; it helps to compensate for the child's extreme dependence and vulnerability.
In reasonably healthy families, they gradually come to understand that their parents are human, fallible, imperfect but still basically safe, trustworthy, and decent role models. Contrary, in dysfunctional families, one or more of the adults act out their damage through depression, verbal attacks, physical and/or sexual abuse, neglect, cruelty, addictions, withdrawal, mental illness, bitterness, and/or constant criticism. As a result, putting each other and the kids in danger and not providing necessities — sometimes even leaving and then NEVER staying in touch, groomed, or earning a living.
All of these, and more, will cause children to feel ashamed of their family (the chaos, the craziness, the cruelty) and by extension, themselves, as they identify with that group. The children’s sense of safety and pride in, both, themselves and their parents becomes eroded and shattered. This is a devastating truth.
That feeling is then carried, like a canker sore in our spirit, into adulthood.
What does healthy shame look like?
From a positive angel (yes, there is one) shame allows one to have self-esteem, and to effectively do so children should always be:
- patiently taught how to do things
- admired and applauded for the things they do well
- respectfully corrected for errors or lapses
- treated with patience for the things they cannot do, especially if it’s because they're too young, but will be able to eventually — or because they are disabled.
While children in damaged families are:
- teased and made fun of for many things (anger disguised with toxic humor)
- yelled at, punished, harangued — sometimes for nothing specific or obvious [idiom-tease]
- expected to know or do the impossible
- insulted about ones gender, looks, tastes, interests
- pushed to do things when too young and then punished for failing
- treated unfairly, abused and then punished for crying, being upset, or getting angry at the mistreatment
- being hit, punished, yelled at, humiliated in public
These and many other forms of shaming are also known as, "soul murder" — representing parents' lack of love and respect for themselves; so for their children, who stand in for their own "Inner Child" these mistreatments abuse the needs that all children have — the need to feel heard and safe, be treated with respect, be shown attention, to grow and learn at their own pace, to find out who they are as individuals, to know they can depend on their caretakers, to look up to their parents, to live, to prosper, and to succeed.
Each of these needs thus become shameful! We conclude that if our family hated these needs, then the needs are bad (along with ourselves for still having them). So they feel the need to suppress, better yet eliminate, no matter how deep and persistent they are.
For example: One person, after hearing the 4th Step in Al-Anon ("Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves") suddenly realized two core issues:
1. His number one toxic rule was, "I should be dead."
2. His most shamed need, "I thought my greatest character defect was my need for love! After all — I never felt loved, I got the message that I wasn't lovable — so I must be a fool to keep wanting it!" In Recovery he learned that this and all his needs were legitimate, universal and his RIGHT, and so he was able to reject the need to die, and start loving himself.
Article continued on ACOA Recovery.
This article was originally published at ACOA Recovery. Reprinted with permission from the author.