A Brief Discussion About Shame

A Brief Discussion about Shame

Judith E. Rader, MA, LMFT
March 9, 2009

The experience of shame and its effect on one's self-esteem is a common focus in therapy sessions. Adults, young and old, typically allude to abstaining from new opportunities, holding back in relationships, recoiling from social situations, or otherwise pulling inward and narrowing their life experiences in response to their never feeling 'good enough', 'smart enough', 'pretty enough', 'masculine enough', 'worthy enough', etc. In family sessions, adolescents and younger children often react to feeling unduly shamed by their parents’ criticism and discipline by either shutting down or escalating in anger – in a sort of fight/flight move to protect their developing self esteem. Broadly speaking, therapy strives to help shame-based adult/young adult clients restructure their thinking towards the goal of countering distorted messages of inadequacy. And in family therapy sessions, parents are helped to adopt a firm, non-shaming form of discipline aimed at averting their children's embrace of the destructive self-talk and low self-esteem that otherwise might lead them to therapy as adults.

Any discussion of shame must acknowledge that there is an adaptive experience of shame, meaning that it actually does serve a beneficial purpose. Adaptive shame keeps us from feeling too entitled; it is what encourages us to not cut in line, or to not speak loudly on our cell phone in a quiet waiting room, for example. In a broader context, adaptive shame keeps some corporate CEOs from taking huge salaries while their company suffers layoffs or large employee pay cuts. And it keeps politicians from distorting the record of their competitor, simply to win. In short, adaptive shame is closely related to empathy and to following the “Golden Rule.”

Maladaptive shame, however, is not a beneficial emotion. It creates a negative view of one’s not 'measuring up' -- which is always a distorted view since there is no standard for 'good enough' or 'worthy enough.' Maladaptive shame is apparent in self-recriminations about 'shoulds' – as in, “I should be able to handle it but I can’t.” Or, “I should never have let myself believe that I could have landed that job.” “Shoulds” typically connote judgment and a lack of compassion for normal human failures, frailties, and misunderstandings. In short, maladaptive shame is a sort of pervasive, illogical, negative lens through which one can easily transform trivial missteps and human imperfections into overwhelming experiences of defeat and distress.

The good news is that there are steps parents can take to foster healthy self esteem in their children, including:

  • Normalize for your child that he/she will have many opportunities to misbehave throughout her/his childhood (including throughout the teenage years) as s/he “tries on” different behaviors.

  • Closely examine your values so that you can clearly communicate your standard of discipline; and respond to misbehaviors with firm, meaningful consequences (as opposed to simply reacting to your child’s misbehavior by over-reaching punishments that are shame-inducing). Examples of non-shaming/non-over-reaching consequences are, for example, not giving your teen an audience regarding his upset until he adjusts his scornful tone; or not allowing your grade school child who has not been completing homework assignments to watch evening television until her completed work is shown to you. Parents who are unsure of their standards for discipline could benefit by talking to other parents or seeking counseling.

  • When your child tests or otherwise violates your rules, consistently provide a firm message -- with a consequence, if necessary. Children actually need their parents to keep them adhering to socially accepted discipline (handing in homework, not violating curfews, etc.) as they “try on” different behaviors (including disrespectful, irresponsible, and unsafe behaviors). “You may not drive the car for the remainder of the week because you ignored the curfew last evening” is an example of a firm, non-shaming consequence.

  • Avoid long lectures which are intrinsically shaming.

  • Avoid incredulous tone and language when responding to your child’s misbehavior, such as “I can’t believe that you skipped out on your last class! What in the world were you thinking when you decided to just get up and leave school? What’s wrong with you?” Substitute that with a firm statement such as, “It’s unacceptable that you skipped class. I will call the guidance counselor to tell him that I support his giving you a detention, and that I would like him to let me know about any further school violations.”

  • Do not compare your child to other siblings or friends

  • Do not focus on a standard of behavior for standard’s sake (getting all A’s on report cards, being in the top quarter of the class, or being connected to a certain popular group of friends, for example). Children will question whether they are “okay” if they do not fulfill their parents’ vision; and that confusion often develops into a certain anger about not feeling accepted for who they are. Rather than focusing on grades, focus on appropriate time and focus devoted to school work. Rather than focusing on your child’s potentially being a stand-out athlete, focus on his enjoying a sport of his choice. And rather than focusing on your child being in certain social groups, focus on her enjoying the friends that she finds valuable.

  • Avoid focusing on your child’s looks (weight, clothing, hairstyle, etc.) outside the context of health, hygiene, and school dress codes. Shaming often results from parents’ critiquing their child’s appearance.

  • Take seriously your child’s concerns about being bullied or teased by peers or siblings. Seek help from other adults (teachers, parents, etc.), if necessary.

For those who reach adulthood with a shame-based self concept, consider counseling. Many traditional talk therapies assist clients in loosening the grip of negative self-talk. And newer therapies including Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) and EMDR (technically not a therapy but a technique that aids in more quickly processing negative cognitions) are powerful new tools that can help clients work through and move beyond their maladaptive shame

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