Chronic or toxic shame is something that we all have to deal with but do our best to hide. It is the part of us that we want to keep dark. Bringing it into the light means looking at the very core of who we really think we are. I say “think we are” because it is not really what we are. It is what we have acquired from being around other shamed people as we developed. It is generational and relational, meaning in a sense that you cannot acquire shame as a child without the input of another person. That other person is almost certainly always a primary caregiver who is also carrying chronic shame and conveys it through a shame-based parenting style and interaction with the child. It is called relational trauma and along with developmental trauma (the stunting of normal child development), guarantees that the child comes into adulthood unprepared to be an adult.
Shame is often classed as the unspoken problem. Even experienced therapists sometimes fail to pick up that it is at the root of many of the issues that clients have. A famous therapist once said: “Whenever someone walks into the room and presents a problem, you can make a reasonable case for shame being the cause”.
Instead of bringing shame into the light, we tend to cover it up with other methods and emotions like anger, sadness, hopelessness, codependency and narcissism. We compensate by projecting false selves onto the world and constantly dealing with fight or flight issues. What all of these symptoms exhibit is a lack of genuine connection with another person. People with chronic shame issues often feel alone and have trouble withy the concept of love. Most truly believe that no-one loves or could possibly love them because of who they are. They often try to find love and connection while carrying the effects of shame, making them defensive and sensitive, misunderstood and angry.
Where codependency is concerned, this search for genuine connection keeps people on a quest for it while foregoing their own valid needs. Such a powerful force must come from somewhere and we can again look at childhood for this.
Shame feels like it is solitary and individually painful and for the sufferer feels like a personal failing caused by one’s own actions and thinking. Things happen to them and others because the sufferer exists. Shame is in effect a disconnection with Self, causing loneliness and a sense of unworthiness, despair and unlovability. Shame then, is about needs for connection, empathy and emotional joining not being met by parents.
Relational trauma occurs in childhood when the bond between child and parent or caregiver is not formed or broken. As this is the most important relationship a child will experience, it affects all subsequent relationships including the one with Self and is the main reason for the acquisition of chronic or toxic shame. In most cases, relational trauma is not created intentionally by caregivers but by a sense of abandonment or enmeshment. The child in effect feels unloved or unsafe at the same time. Relational trauma exists through physical abandonment (death, divorce, separation), emotional abandonment (neglect, denial of child’s need for love, boundaries or guidance, emotional withdrawal), or emotional enmeshment (Child forced to meet parent’s needs before own, parent overwhelms child with inappropriate emotional input such as emotional incest, parental alienation).
Relational trauma can result in chronic shame, boundary issues, low self-esteem, mental health issues and above all, problems in relationships where clingy, needy or distant connection is the norm. Relational trauma has been described as a deep violation of human connection. When a person abuses, betrays, rejects, bullies, neglects, or otherwise mistreats another person, it can lead to complex relational trauma in the victim. The far-reaching impacts of this violation include psychological, emotional, and behavioural impacts as well as extreme difficulty developing strong, healthy relationships (relational trauma could and sometimes is also interchanged with terms and descriptions such as complex PTSD, developmental trauma, and interpersonal trauma).
In terms of acquiring shame, many observers see relational trauma as more than just wounded pride or a self-esteem issue. On a deeper level, it is actually classed as disintegration of the Self by a disregulated other (caregiver carrying his or her own chronic shame or relational trauma).
When we talk about personal well-being, we talk about a sense of integrated Self and good relationships are the glue that keeps the Self in integrated wholeness. From birth, children develop patterns of connectedness that rely on the expectation and reliance that this will be met with connection. These patterns become indicative of how the Self relates to others and is an essential part of developing into adulthood and enjoying healthy relationships. If having an integrated sense of Self is reliant on good connection with caregivers, it makes sense to believe that if this goes wrong, the sense of Self is threatened with annihilation. Those who have acquired chronic shame in this way will fight to keep it out of conscious awareness by adopting a number of “selves” to compensate. The experience of feeling chronic shame is to feel “blank”, “numb” or “shattered”: Adults in therapy who have acquired chronic shame will first present with anxiety or depression. However, we must always keep in mind that probably no parent sets out intentionally to shame their child but chronic shame is acquired through an un-repaired connection with a dysregulating other. A dysregulating other is from a child’s view a person who they want to connect with, trust and should be able to trust to regulate the childhood feelings shown but this other person responds badly or not at all. Shame is acquired when the response fails to help the child regulate emotions and feelings. This is probably due to the fact that the caregiver was also around people growing up unregulated themselves.
Much therapy around shame is done left brain to left brain. A left brained person is mostly analytical and methodical in thinking and applies factual logic and frameworks to a problem. While everyone uses both sides of their brains in work (and in life), people who think of themselves as right brained tend to be creative, emotional, and intuitive. They are more likely an imaginative and innovative thinkers and are often drawn to fields where they can express themselves freely and help others. Therapy tries to find solutions to problems and issues presented. It is “doing”.
A child around a dysregulating other will often dissociate from emotional connection and regulation. What suffers in this process is the full development of the right brain. The right brain is where effective communication and secure attachment is fostered by the right brain of the caregiver connecting to the forming right brain of the child. In other words “being” there for the child. It follows then, that the treatment of shame should be predominately a right brain interaction between a regulating therapist and the healing right brain of the client through effective communication, empathy, self-regulation on the part of the therapist, being able to express and recognise non-verbal communication in a positive sense. Change in therapy comes when a client is able to recognise, communicate and regulate emotions in a space where they feel safe to do so. It is for this reason that therapies based on creativity and visualisation are more successful than purely analytical methods.
Right brain promotion gives an experience of “feeling clearly” and any adult therapy around this has to recreate what was missing when the child first attempted to connect. Doing this successfully will increase the chances that the client will see the right brain as a part of “self” and not as an alien concept that contains fear and shame. They will have a broader sense of emotions and be able to self-regulate rather than dissociate. In the end, fruitful, healthy relationships are all right brain.
Nobody goes into a relationship based on logic!!
Photo Credit: Freepik.
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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner’s approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients’ internal “parts,” or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.