The reverberating circuit of shame

Professor Black, a committed member of Procrastinators Anonymous, followed a regular pattern of accomplishment. She would start her day painfully, shamefully remembering she hadn’t performed a task she had promised herself, her students, or her school she would do. She would be setting out to do it when it would occur to her to check her email for anything new. Then it would occur to her that she had a call to make, or a note to write, or a text to answer, and she would get all involved in that. Then, with a great pinch of shame, she would remember the put-off task. The shame feeling was such an unpleasant intrusion into her busy doing state that she would want to put it out of her mind as soon as possible. A bite to eat or a chat with a friend or call to Procrastinators Anonymous would help to eradicate the immediacy of the unwelcome emergence of shame. The shame-reducing diversion of course added to her feeling of irresponsibility and presented a further source of shame. She might then gear up to tackle the avoided task. For a brief time feel she would feel relieved, with a moment of pride, until she remembered the next task she had been putting off and the shame would return. Both her parents had been critical and perfectionistic but offered little help to her in achieving her intentions and goals. Her underlying affect tone reflected feelings of being alone, with a mix of high energy and being helpless to focus without a guiding hand.

Shame as identity

Johnny you did a really bad thing crayoning on our newly painted wall. We’ll get something to clean it off.

Tom you are a really bad boy. You never listen. You just want to drive me crazy. Go to your room. I don’t want to see you - you upset me so much!

Johnny is told he acted in an unacceptable way. He should be ashamed of his behavior. He must learn to change what he does.

Tom is told he should be ashamed of his very being: he is a bad doer, an obstinate refuser to learn, a threat to his mother’s sanity, and his whole physical being is a disturbing sight to see.

Johnny is given the space to use shame as a signal to inhibit an inclination to mar a surface not designated for crayoning. Johnny’s mother said we will work it out, introducing a “we” - a “you and I,” a spirit of cooperation. She might add “Next time I’ll see you have a nice book to crayon in.”

Tom is given no space to develop reflection about a specific intention. He isn’t only acting badly, he is bad - the whole of his being. Mother says the problem is him: his shameful badness. For her, it’s all bad-boy Tom’s fault. She polarizes. Where Johnny’s mother might have an implicit experience of signal shame that she wasn't there to supervise Johnny, Tom’s mother has no such self-reflective experience. And Tom gets no space for his own self-reflection. He too will polarize. He may accept her designation, build it into his identity, into his sense of self, and accommodate to it. Or he may internally roil against her attribution and conclude implicitly or explicitly that she is a bad, mean mommy. Tom’s internal message to himself - often deeply felt - is that his naughtiness aside, he is not bad or evil and that his accuser is treating him in a manner that demonstrates no loving care and fairness. Tom is far more likely to make this more positive if he has built a reservoir of loving, caring belief in his essential goodness from the treatment of significant others who like him and react to his unacceptable acts as Johnny’s mother did.

Respect for a child’s intentions and a balance between praise and shame-scolding increases the likelihood for reflective space and signaling to inhibit unacceptable intentions. Repetitive scolding, especially if accompanied by threats and fear, diminishes the likelihood of reflective space. Scolding and threats expressed in tones of disdain, condescension, and contempt have a lasting corrosive effect on self-respect, as do with shame and humiliation. The corrosive effect will include an underlying affect tone of being unlovable, and of lacking self-confidence or hope in seeking.

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