What? Shame?

The past twenty years have seen increased interest in the concept of shame and how shame affects the behavior of the human being. “Shame Theory” as seen by this author emerged as a result of the work of Silvan Tompkins in the mid-twentieth century followed by the work of Gershen Kaufman in the 1990’s. This work is now being carried forward by a number of theorists and authors, the most notable of which is Brené Brown.

 Basically, shame is seen as one of nine basic feelings that motivate human beings to act (Kaufman 1996). This theory differs from Freud’s “drive theory” which states that humans are motivated by basic internal drives. According to Kaufman, “shame is the most poignant of all feelings… unlike terror and distress, shame is a wound made from the inside that separates us from ourselves and others…a sickness of the soul.”

 Shame and affect theories afford practitioners the capability of developing healing strategies that are rooted in Cognitive Behavioral theory.

 What follows is a systematic presentation of how shame is originally revealed within human development, and how shame can become debilitating and unhealthy. This brief paper is an attempt to inform the reader as to how shame, which is natural and adaptive, can be turned into the most avoided feeling within the human condition.

 The material presented in the following paper is based in three major theories within the history of psychological study: Affect Theory (Tompkins and Kaufman); Developmental Theory (Erikson); and Object Relations Theory (Fairbairn, Klein, Winnincott, Mahler, and others). It is intended that this paper be written in simple, common sense language that will represent processes that are taken for granted by adult human beings with regard to developing children.

 Please note that throughout the descriptions of parent-child interactions, the word mother is used to denote the developing child’s most significant caretaker. This reference to mother is kept for two reasons: first, in the great preponderance of cases it is the actual mother to whom a child first attaches, and second, it is more convenient than using the term “primary caretaker.”

 Origins of Shame:

The feeling of shame is ubiquitous and universal; the manner in which shame affects an individual “evolves” within the context of each being’s developmental environment, and, thus, will be unique to each.

Shame, as it has come to be known (i.e., a deep painful experience of the self as flawed, bad and unworthy; see Gershen Kaufman, Brene´ Brown) has it origins in infancy. Kaufman claims that shame is present in the early life of infants (Kaufman, 1992), but it is the opinion of this writer that this is not likely. The neonatal infant has no cognitive capacity, and thus can perceive no meaning to external stimuli. Infants can certainly react to their environments, but they cannot intuit meaning, and thus cannot feel shame. The experience of the “feeling” of shame requires an understanding of failure.

How infancy sets the stage:

The infant’s emotional world is limited to reflexive, systemic reactions recognized by observers as either pleasure or pain. These states are manifest either by distress (anger and tears) or the opposite (peaceful repose or smiling).

D.W. Winnincott, a 20th Century Object Relations Analyst and theorist, put forth the idea that there is such a thing as a “good enough mother.” This notion implies that the mother (or primary caretaker) does a “good enough” job of supplying sustenance, shelter and safety to a child within an attitude of love, so as to promote satisfactory emotional growth. John Bowlby notes this in his volume, Attachment.  All ensuing theories of human development agree that a firm, healthy attachment to the mother (or mother substitute) is required for the formation of a psychologically healthy human being. Neurobiologist, Allan Schore (1994), revealed that the neurological structure of the brain is different in well-attached versus poorly-attached human beings. A notion that implies that early emotional damage leaves the child “hard-wired” to have future difficulty with mental illness, attachments and intimacy.

The essence of infancy and the notion of healthy attachment are grounded in the satisfaction of the infant’s needs. These needs are signaled to the mother by way of crying and angering. An infant will experience a need as pain, and reveal this pain by way of outward behavior (crying). The mother will assess the root of this pain and take steps to alleviate it. In the “good enough” mother-child system, this process cycles repeatedly throughout infancy.

If, it is accepted that the infant has no cognitive understanding or his or her situation, then it can be inferred that the infant, experiencing relief for the act of crying, will undergo a variation of operant conditioning. The process is as thus: the infant’s need gives rise to discomfort, discomfort gives rise to crying, crying alerts the mother, mother assesses and addresses the need, the child experiences relief; over time the child “learns” to reproduce the relief by way of crying. For the infant, however, the conditioning is simpler: in the “good enough” environment the child experiences pain, the child cries, the pain goes away. Thus, in the first months of life, the infant learns to trust that when he or she cries, relief will ensue. In simple terms, infants, as they mature, are trained to cry to get what they need, and later as toddlers, to get what they want.

Erik Erikson’s developmental theory posits that the emotional milestone of infancy will be resolved as either Trust or Mistrust. When the above process of needs’ gratification is repeated again and again in an attitude of love, Trust is learned. When not satisfactorily performed, Mistrust will exist in its place.  Mistrust will result in manifestations of various forms of dis-ease throughout the child’s development, and later throughout that his or her adult experience. Additionally, the presence of Mistrust over Trust will make it more likely for the developing child to internalize greater amounts shame in toddlerhood and beyond.

The toddler:

There is a simple observation that differentiates an infant from a toddler: an infant will throw food on the floor and look at the food; a toddler will throw food on the floor and look at the parent. This very simple distinction demonstrates the notion that the “mind” of an infant is internal and self-contained, while the mind of the toddler is one of emerging awareness of self in relationship to the world.

It is in toddlerhood that, according to Erikson, Shame will emerge as the antithesis to Autonomy (i.e., healthy sense of self). Since the time of Erikson’s formulation, this “fact” has been taught in nearly every developmental psychology course that has been offered. It is left to the imagination as to how much or how little emphasis instructors have placed upon the importance of such a simple statement, but in the experience of this author, the above “fact” was taught, memorized as a test item, and then forgotten. It was only later in middle adulthood that this “fact” was recognized as one of the most important concepts in understanding the human condition.

Erikson observed that children who develop a healthy sense of self (what he labeled “Autonomy”) exhibit good eye contact, independent play, smiling, and experimentation; while children who experience increased shame and self-doubt exhibit poor eye contact, lethargy, irritability, and lack of interest in healthy exploration.

It is the strongly held position of this writer that the feeling of shame first emerges in toddlerhood when the developing child obtains the ability to intuit that he or she has failed to achieve some goal. That goal can be anything from getting a piece of candy to being allowed to write on a wall. When the parent interferes with the desires of a child, the child will experience a feeling of frustration that will result in tears and anger (i.e., frustration).   It is posited that this feeling of frustration is the raw experience of the feeling of shame (i.e., the “bad feeling” associated with refutation…i.e., failure).

Simply stated, shame is the feeling (i.e., visceral response) that is experienced when a person (child or adult) perceives a failure to achieve some goal; in the case of the developing child, shame is experienced when the child is refused or refuted in pursuit of a desired object.

As was learned in infancy, the toddler child will cry in response to pain (except now in toddlerhoood it is the pain of refutation), at first because it hurts, in time to gain relief by way of gratification. Thus, crying is the manner in which a developing child copes with the feeling of raw shame. It is from this point forward that the child will learn that this feeling will be experienced either as a painful, yet natural response to refusals, or as the even more painful notion that the child is inherently flawed.

Three Basic Responses to Crying:

The crying child is bad:

One of the most noticeable parental responses to the crying toddler is the tendency for a parent to take coercive action to stop a child from crying. In these cases crying is seen as an undesirable behavior. The parent believes that the child must be stopped from crying in order for the parent to feel as though he or she is not a “bad” parent, and that he or she has a “good” child. These parents will publicly threaten, intimidate, scold, spank, and/or hit their crying children.   Many people, men and women alike (but certainly more so men), are familiar with the phrase “you keep crying, and I am going to give you something to cry about.” Phrases such as this had become part of our society’s lexicon through to the late twentieth century, and revealed, at least in part, our culture’s attitude about crying children. There appears to be movement away from this stance with modern parenting, but residual elements of this way of thinking remain.

These harsh responses to the crying child can be seen as a function of a parent’s own embarrassment (i.e., shame). The process will promote a lack of self worth within the developing child by way of the parent’s negative “projections” and the child’s subsequent “introjections” of the parent’s emotional messages. It can also be seen that these responses work to create a child who will have difficulty coping with the huge disparity between what is natural (i.e., crying as the emotional release of pain), and what is expected from the parent (i.e., to be a well behaved child).

Early manifestations of failures are not laden with the child’s notion that the child is flawed, but rather that crying and angering are natural responses to not getting one’s way. It is when the parent begins to assign some negative meaning to the child’s crying that he child will begin to internalize the parent’s attitude toward the crying child (and unconsciously, the feeling that produced the crying). Thus, the feeling of shame (the natural response to disappointment and failure) becomes associated with the notion that the child is “bad” (i.e., spoiled, being a big baby, a brat, or a sissy).

Very quickly, a toddler child can learn that there is something wrong within due to the simple act of crying. The child discovers that it is not a good idea to cry when he or she feels like crying, because punishment or belittlement will ensue. In order to avoid or minimize these insults, the child must stop, or not start, crying. It is believed that a toddler child can act only as well as he or she feels, and therefore, in order to not cry (and thereby avoid unpleasant parental or societal responses), the child must learn to stop feeling. This results in the suppression of feelings and internal buildup of natural emotion. Then, from that the formation of a character in which the more outgoing child will sporadically burst forth with anger (display brittle character), or the more inward child to sink into depression and despair (i.e., display decompensating character).

It should be remembered that only a few months earlier, this same child was gratified nearly every time he or she cried, and from this process the very necessary experience of Trust was learned. Yet, for many children (and their parents), the period of toddlerhood becomes a trying time in that the child has to break a habit of crying which was happily and graciously reinforced by the parent during infancy. This shift in the attitude of the parent (and society) toward the developing child is experienced as something akin to being a king for a year, and then, virtually over night, a servant.

What’s worse, this shift in attitude is experienced as a break in trust.

It is surprising that for all the love and good intentions held by so many mothers and fathers, there can be such a lack of empathy and understanding for a child going through this phase of development.   Many parents lose patience with their crying children only to see their children redouble their tendency to cry, and they, the parents, redouble their efforts to stop it.   The process of escalation between child and parent results in an emotional loss of the child’s experience of love from the parent, and yields a break in the trust that was acquired during the first year of life. This ultimately results in parents who unwittingly sacrifice the emotional health of their progeny in an effort to produce well behaved little children.

 It is bad for the child to be crying:

There is another situation that is often observed at the grocery store: parental indulgence of the crying child.  Crying is still seen as an undesirable behavior, but the parental response is in line with it is undesirable to experience the crying child.  This parent is also trying to avoid feelings of failure and embarrassment, but does so by giving-in to the child’s wants in order to quiet the child. These parents are usually of two types: the anxious/guilty parent who cannot tolerate seeing his or her child in pain, or the more self-centered parent who is concerned about image or gaining the child’s acceptance.

This method of quieting the crying child is highly effective in the moment, but severely damaging over the long-term in that the processes of infancy are perpetuated far longer than are considered healthy. The way these situations usually evolve is as such: the child will see something that he or she desires, the child will make some sort of overture to show the parent the desire, the parent will at first deny the child’s wish in that it is unnecessary, too costly, or simply not desirable or acceptable to the parent; the child will cry; the parent will insist; the child will get angry and cry more loudly; the parent will give in due to either internal fears or perceived social pressure.

The above dynamic results in children who develop a “fragile” character. They develop an internalized understanding that crying loudly enough will cause the world to yield to them. Eventually, these children often fail to adapt well to the demands of the world, and can grow to be manipulative, victim-oriented personalities. They learn to expect indulgence, and they seek and find people who will accommodate them throughout their lives, or at least until their world is fed up with them.

This style of parenting also results in a breaking of trust within the developing child. However, it is a more subtle for of trust-breaking.  Here the parent does not maintain his or her initial stance in relationship to a child, and the child experiences see the parent as untrustworthy in that the parent is not keeping his or her word, in spite of the fact that the child experiences the pleasure of being gratified. This process not only breaks trust with the child, but serves to give the child the idea that he or she has emotional power in the world; at first over parents, later over others. Additionally, many of these children fail to learn healthy respect for authority, because they have not been taught their place in relationship to adults in their world.

Too bad, the child is crying:

There is a middle ground between the two positions outlined above: the parent can be “okay” with the crying child. This parent sees crying as natural, and responds to the crying child in a neutral, disengaged, yet compassionate manner. This parent is not embarrassed by the child’s crying, and thus is neither indulgent, nor coercive, but rather accepting of the child’s struggle to cope with the disappointments of life. This parent has the ability to “hold the line” with the child, while being able to have empathy for that child’s struggle.

Sometime ago (more than 40 years) Readers Digest (volume unknown) published a story about a woman pushing a grocery cart through a store with a crying child in it. Throughout the woman’s time at the store she kept chanting: “calm down Jessica, calm down.” When the mother got to the checkout, an elderly woman who had been watching mother and her child said to the mother: “You know dear, I admire the way you’ve kept your patience with little Jessica.” After a pause and a sigh, the mom replied, “thank you, but I’m Jessica.”

There is a school of thought (Object Relations) that maintains it is imperative that the mother, or mother substitute, be able to contain both her own emotions and the emotions of her crying child, especially when that child is at his or her emotional worst. When a mother manages her toddler child’s actions against her (i.e., crying, angering, protesting, blaming and etc.) without retaliation, abandonment or indulgence, the child will eventually accept his or her situation, let go of the negative emotions, and reconnect with mother in a more positive manner (Slipp, 1990). On the other hand, when a mother (or other caretaker) responds to a crying child with aggression, rejection, or disdain, the mother becomes an undesirable object, and it is less likely the child will experience a desire to reconnect, and more likely that the child will go on to retaliate or exhibit increased bouts of negative behaviors.

Ongoing repetition of one or the other of the above processes will eventually lead to a child who will learn that he or she is loved and can thereby develop concern for others, or a child who internalizes anger, rejection and shame, and becomes ever more greatly self-absorbed.

This middle-ground style of parenting prepares the growing child to accept a world that will not change because of the child’s emotional state. The child will build on the trust that was acquired in infancy, and there will be far less chance of serious mental health issues later in life because rational and reasonable responses were provided in response to the child’s aggressive and disorderly actions in early childhood.

These children will have the greatest chance of developing a “tempered” character. One in which they will acquire the ability to regulate strong emotion rather than lean on aggression or sink into depression when confronted by life’s hardships.

In conclusion:

It can be seen from the above examination of the developmental process, that many human beings come in contact with the destructive familial and societal influences of shame very early in their lives. Shame, as described within this paper, is as natural as sadness, fear, excitement and joy. It is the root feeling of the experience of the human conscience. Because shame emerges so early in life, it resides at the very core of the human experience (Kaufman 1996). Yet, in spite of its ubiquitous presence, and its huge contribution to mental illness, it has remained in the shadows of the western human experience, and out of the foreground of rational, systematic examination.

What can be seen from the above analysis is this: the presence of shame, and the tendency to reinforce its presence by way of parental and societal reactions must be taken into greater consideration within western life, especially by treatment providers, teachers, doctors and clergy. It can be concluded that the lack of awareness of how shame works within the human being, has led to vast numbers of people taking psychotropic medications for mental illnesses, as well as huge numbers of men and women who populate our nation’s jails.

One solution to the dilemma presented by shame is relatively simple. The processes of human development need to be universally taught in our public school systems.   Simple understandings of human development could be taught in elementary schools by way of stories about character and caretaking. Human Developmental theory, Affect theory, Object Relations theory and Cognitive Behavioral theory should be taught as science on a quarterly basis beginning in the freshman year of high school, and continued throughout the high school experience.

There are those who claim that modern Americans are growing soft and preoccupied with technology. This may well be true, but every adult American will have at one time been an infant and a toddler, and every infant and toddler will soon be an adult American. It just makes good sense that teaching us what we are and how we get this way will have the effect of increasing the odds that more of our offspring will have a better chance at healthy adulthood, and healthier future generations.

Bibliography to be completed later.

Erikson, E.,

Kaufman, G., The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes, Second Edition, Springer Publishing, NY, 1996

Kaufman, G., Shame: The Power of Caring, Schenkman Books Inc., NY, 1992
Mahler, M., et al, Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, Basic Books, 387 Park Avenue South, New York, New York, 1975

Slipp, S.,  Object Relations: A Dynamic Bridge Between Individual and Family Treatment, pp. 48-9

Author: Ray Messer

Veteran Therapist and Parent Educator (since 1978). Currently holds an Independent Social Work License in the State of Ohio. Operates a limited private practice in Kettering, OH. Originally trained as a Chemistry Teacher (1968-1972); Religious degree received from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH 1982; received Masters in Social Work in 1991 from the University of Cincinnati. Married and living in Cincinnati, OH.

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