The dynamics of shame and embarrassment are central issues in the development of the self in those individuals who have come from dysfunctional families. Understanding a few issues can be helpful in making changes so that these fears will lose their great power in your life.
The Problem with Shame
Shame is a core emotion for those who come from dysfunctional families. Those who grow up in dysfunctional families are “shame-prone” because of their early experiences of the “self” as “weak and highly limited.” The usual “buffering” factors that help us at times of problems are not available in dysfunctional families (i.e., a supportive family).
Exposing one’s shame or embarrassment to others can be extremely anxiety-provoking for those who are always having to protect themselves from others who might see their “defective self.” This leaves us feeling highly vulnerable to hurt, abandonment, and aloneness.
With the lack of support from others there is a “defensive distortion” of the internalized “ideal self” that can help to make one feel positive. The gap between the actual and ideal selves produces shame feelings that are extremely painfully felt by children who have been abused or come from dysfunctional families.
Vulnerability and Shame
Vulnerability is felt because the child has been confronted with their inability to control the self, others, or events resulting in a poor understanding in human behaviors. In contrast, healthy children imagine the future as holding unlimited possibilities and see themselves self as having unlimited potential. Traumatized children dread and shrink from “future imagined threats” in terms of confusing, painful past events they have experienced.
Whenever one cannot trust an adult, the adult is de-idealized. The child faces the loss of the idealized other that can be psychologically internalized to help them develop their own positive self-image. To maintain the idealized dysfunctional parent, the child denies or distorts their emotional experiences of the parent. This results in exacting a heavy toll. The child’s experience of the self and others is grossly incomplete, unintegrated, and unreal.
Support in dysfunctional families is frequently compromised. The child is told that their pain, lack of control, need to be a child, and any understanding of them does not matter. These messages then become internalized. When abuse, trauma, dysfunction, control, are kept secret and hidden, the child is cut off from potentially protective and shame-mitigating/buffering responses from adults.
The Many Disguises of Shame
Shame-based responding may go unrecognized by the person and others. Such behaviors and symptoms permit one to escape painful shame feelings. Intense and repeated shame can feel like a “global attack on the self” that the individual will fight off at any cost.
Shame-based responding behaviors can be disguised as one or more of the following:
- Compulsive self-reliance
- A need to have control over other people’s every move
- Unrecognized depression
- Bodily symptoms and pains
- Running from commitments and relationships
- Self-destructive behaviors
- Fear of intimacy
- Marital/relationship problems
- Anger management problems
Fearing exposure of “the defective self,” the person may react defensively to others who inquire about any behaviors. They hide their shame with another feeling such as anger, control, sadness, or fear of assertiveness.
The person may choose unsafe figures to idealize in order to trust and believe in something better than one’s own self. As such the person enters relationship that are inappropriate, co-dependent, and unhealthy. For example, acting out and having an affair is a statement of wanting and yet mistrusting closeness with others.
Resistance, defensiveness, and acting out can be understood as shame-avoiding behaviors. Shame-based responding can cause others to react in the same defensive, angry, fault-finding, excuse making, protecting of the dysfunctional person, all induced by the “shame-based person.” All any of this does is to reinforce the individual’s secretiveness, lack of being real with others, and underlying feelings of shame.
Shame-based responders would rather “run” from dealing with situations, relationships, and others. They are prone to divorces rather than changing and growing. Blaming and fault-finding is easier because it was taught to them early in their lives by their parents. People with histories of dysfunction and/or abuse have higher rates of physical disorders, pains, disabilities, and internalization of emotional problems which come out aggravating any physical disorders.
Solutions to Shame
- It’s critical to understand that you anger, need to control, avoidance, blaming, physical problems, overly high personal standards, relationship problems, and so on, are all related to “shame-based” responding.
- Agree that keeping secrets, hiding feelings and emotions, only makes it worse in the long run.
- Admit that you did not have a healthy childhood and you need to reach out to others for help.
- Know that you are not defective. You just grew up in a dysfunctional family that was overly-controlling, abusive, dysfunctional, and unconcerned with you needs as a child.
- Know that your behaviors are controlled by the past, not the present situation.
- Admit to your fears of closeness, intimacy, and letting others know you.
- Grieve your “lost childhood,” understanding that you anger and need to control is related to “never having been a child.”
- Quit blaming others, even when they are the ones that have the problem.
- Focus on yourself, realizing that when you give up control you actually have more control – even if you think that you are right and they are wrong!
- Know that your fears are related to the past, being hurt, and worrying that if you do anything you will be hurt again.
- Know that “shame-based responding” can come out in many more ways that we have discussed here. Look to understand yourself and your defensive style with all the “yes, but’s….”
- Let go of your need to control others or needing to know what they are doing, where they are at, and whether or not they will remain loyal to you. That is all related to the “fears of the past.”
- Know that you can’t control others to love you. Give them choice and freedom, taking the risks and the anxieties associated with risk you feel.
- Know this will all take time. Others need much time to “trust” the “new you” and cannot be “rushed into change” just because “you feel different.” Healing comes by understanding other’s needs while not forgetting your own in the process.
- You don’t have to blame others. You just have to understand what has happened to you. You do not need to confront anyone except the feelings inside of you.
The healing power comes from the reflection on the pain that one has had to live through. To heal is to make an effort to understand your experience. One does not have to blame. One just has to understand what happened and how this made things much more difficult along life’s path for you. You just have to deal with the persons and situations inside of you that shaped your early life experiences.
If you are going to heal, you have to feel, experience, reflect, and give a conscious awareness to what happened and what you went through. Once you have done this you can start to mourn the past so you can move on to a “new and improved future.” The only way to change this is to “not do it,” no matter what you feel. Keep these fears to yourself and remind yourself that you are now an adult and you don’t need to focus on such negatives. Otherwise, they will continue to increase and be the central focus of your life.