In the West, our introduction to power and dominance comes early. Starting with our first moves towards independence, we learn our desire for freedom can be squelched by someone bigger, more powerful, even Goddess-like. Mom. She is the order of things, purveyor of NO!, steadfast in her exertion of Mother‘s nature. She is the Queen of Toddlerdom.
Of course, a good mother doesn’t start harsh. (And a “mother” can have any gender — it’s the role played that is essential.) She is initially affectionate, swaddling the infant in care and unconditional love. Even cleaning up poop seems to bring her delight. (See how she coos while changing a diaper.)
But around 9 to 16 months of age, when the infant morphs into a toddler, and becomes ambulatory and indiscriminate in curiosity, Mother, the greatest Transformer, shape shifts into her steely exterior.
No! Don’t color on the walls. No! Stay away from the socket. No! Don’t hit your sister. No! Don’t eat the cat’s tail. NO! NO! NO! NO!
According to one study, toddlers in the US hear a prohibiting “no,” or its derivative, every 9 minutes — this after a lifetime of basic body functions causing celebratory attention. With a cascade of NOs comes the introduction of shame into the emotional lexicon, inhibiting actions and self-expression, teaching submission to forces more powerful than one’s own.
Granted, the role of these NOs is to distinguish right from wrong, and safe from dangerous, but who knows what the child comprehends. Depending on how the well-meaning parent identifies dangers in the environment, the child may instead perceive the parent as threatening. Given the child’s temperament, as well as the caregiver’s child rearing skills, the child may become anxious, or shut down, fearing abandonment for not being good enough, or wishing to flee contact altogether.
Learning to feel shame is likely an unavoidable lesson. It’s a basic way we bond, and has been for millions of years. Nevertheless, there are variations between cultures, families, societies, and people for how shame is learned, applied, as well as experienced. For example, Japan is often described as a high-shame culture. The adage about how the nail that sticks out becomes the one hammered down is commonly stated as evidence of Japan’s use of shame to order its society.
The US is also a shame-based society, although unlike the Japanese, we are predominantly shame avoidant, a trait seen in the self-centered, so-called “narcissistic” obsession with appearances and status for which we are globally recognized.
Some of our shame avoidance likely arises from child rearing practices that promote the rugged individualism symbolizing the American way of life. No one wants to seem too vulnerable to the influence of another. Yet this is likely only one reason persona often takes precedence over the authentic self. The US is also the industrialized country with the highest record of childhood abuse, and childhood abuse is one of life’s most shaming experiences.
Generally speaking, shame is a healthy and useful emotion. At its core, shame is the fear of disconnection and potentially supports “prosocial” behavior, thus acting in ways that secure membership in a group. Showing shame can contribute to repairing social bonds when there has been an offense. It signals to others that you know you have failed to respond as expected. The humiliation, sadness, fear, and anger that shame causes are like a hot poker, reducing the likelihood you’ll repeat the foible that led to feelings of shame.
Shame, however, takes on a more defensive role when it is a response to childhood abuse. Then shame reverts to its more primitive form, acting more as neurobiological regulator than as emotional prod for dealing with the social consequences of one’s actions.
Sometimes in response to submitting to abuse, a child will split off feelings of shame along with feelings of fear. Dissociating these emotions contributes to the abused child’s ability to stay attached to the caregiver. In some cases, in order to continue believing the caregiver is a worthy love object and attachment figure, the child may begin to believe that she is the one who is bad and worthless, and undeserving of love. Thus, the child begins to identify herself or himself with feelings of shame, rather than an action or a behavior.
The outcome is more than just feelings and thoughts contributing to low self-worth. Feelings of shame can also trigger reminders of the abuse, along with submissive defense responses. (For some, avoidance of shame leads to aggression, which I wrote about in a chapter titled “Phenomenology of Violence,” published in Violence In/And The Great Lakes.)
When shame triggers submission, the cues that signal danger will likely fail to activate other survival tactics, such as fighting or fleeing. In one study of people with histories of childhood sexual abuse who were revictimized as adults, feelings of shame were the greatest indicator of the likelihood of revictimization — even greater than dissociation, the hallmark defense response of the trauma survivor.
Shame is the emotion that teaches us to curb behaviors that might interfere with social connections. Again, this is not a bad thing. However, when shame becomes associated with one’s personhood and sense of value, well, that’s when shame has lost its utility as a tool for social connection and has become a person’s private hell.
Rarely do people talk about the shame associated with histories of childhood abuse. But talking about this shame helps disintegrate the self-persecuting shell it creates, which although constructed to keep a person safe, also keeps the world out.
If I were to speak about abuse-related shame symbolically (as a good Jungian would), I would describe the Wizard of Oz as a tale about overcoming shame, with all the characters representing parts of the self that split off in response to the trauma of abuse — and when the time is right, contribute to the quest for integration. And shame would play a central role in the initial fragmentation, as well as keeping fragmentation as the psyche’s norm.
The Tin Woodman represents the search for safe love and attachment. The Scarecrow reveals the need for wisdom and mindfulness. The Lion shows the necessity of a healthy fight response. And Dorothy personifies the isolated, wounded self recoiling from the persecuting shell of shame.
The yellow brick road is the journey towards integration and away from the fear of overwhelming feelings, especially shame. The Wicked Witch is Dorothy’s persecuting shame, keeping Dorothy in a false state of goodness and purity (I mean really, that bow?), unable to address the feelings of low self-worth ignited when shame gets too close.
Once Dorothy connects with her courage to face down the Wicked Witch, she begins to gain her stride, commencing the schlep to Oz, which granted, turns out to be a false start, but still, she finds herself one step closer to an authentic sense of self and a realistic understanding of the world she inhabits. And really, that’s what healing shame is all about: becoming what vulnerability researcher Brené Brown calls whole hearted, taking the risk to love yourself (even the ugly parts), to become vulnerable, and to open to the rough and tumble nature of belonging to the tribe in which shame plays a necessary and binding role.
Turner, Jonathan H. 2000. On the Origins of Human Emotions. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
© 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).
Written By Laura K Kerr, Ph.D