Shame is that squirming, deeply painful feeling when we think we have done something ‘wrong’ or foolish.
Up until recently I thought it was a ‘negative’ thing to experience. However, on my somatic trauma training I was enlightened to the concept of healthy shame.
It’s actually a very effective evolutionary emotion. Our ancestors needed to be in social groups to survive and we still have those drives today. The best way to teach a child to be socially accepted is to induce shameful feelings when they are not behaving the way they need to. The child doesn’t want to experience that feeling so is less likely to repeat the behaviour (akin to B.F Skinner’s operant conditioning if you are familiar with).
This kind of parenting, social interaction has been effective for thousands of years. However, in modern society we need to be aware of when healthy shame slips into unhealthy shame. Unhealthy shame often manifests feelings of self-loathing, social anxiety and fear of doing the ‘wrong’ thing. This usually stems from two types of encounters-
You have been harshly blamed and criticised for things you have or have not done, usually without reasoned rational explanations.
You have experienced or witnessed traumatic events, like domestic violence, sexual and emotional abuse and interpreted them as your fault.
What makes the difference from healthy shame being an effective social tool to unhealthy shame which promotes mental instability? The answer lies in how they have been delivered and if the relationship is repaired afterwards.
If social correction has been enforced with love and kindness, the intention of creating a happy, healthy home AND (this is a crucial part) the experience is talked about afterwards in a calm reasoned way so the relationship is happy once again then the shameful feelings experienced are not likely to have damaging consequences. The problems happen when people are unfairly shamed for things or experiences and or witness traumatic events and the relationship isn’t repaired. In order for the person to understand what’s happened the only logical explanation it can come up with is that, it must have been my fault and therefore I’m a bad person (or something similar to that).
For that reason, I make a plea to everyone to come from a place of love and kindness. When you need to enforce boundaries/discipline/teach your children make sure they understand why it is happening and make sure you repair the relationship afterwards.
If you have experienced a traumatic childhood or events subsequently and now suffer from painful, shameful feelings frequently then please do get in touch. I can help you make sense of it so it doesn’t feel so awful anymore.