Understanding Shame, part 4: Growing up shame-based

Editor’s note: This week, we offer you a 5-part series — originating in The Attached Family online magazine’s “Parenting Without Shame” issue — to help you better understand the development of toxic shame. Part 1 explained how trauma includes 3 components: Fear, Disconnection, and Shame. Part 2 explored Fear. Part 3 defined Disconnection. In this Part 4, we take a look at what it means to become shame-based.

Shame is a visceral and pervasive feeling of being fundamentally flawed and inadequate as a human being.

Shame is primarily relational: Although shame leaves us feeling absolutely alone, its roots lie in an implicit conviction that we are somehow unworthy of having meaningful relationships with other people.

Shame vs Guilt

Shame is often confused with guilt, but with guilt, we feel bad about things we have done. With shame, we feel bad about who we are.

Guilt is about our actions. Shame is about our being.

Shame is mediated by the emotional networks of the brain, so although shame is typically accompanied by self-critical thoughts like “I am stupid/useless/fat/pathetic,” it is ultimately lived as an embodied experience that resides deep beneath our awareness and sucks us into the psychological equivalent of a black hole.

When Shame Becomes Toxic

Shame is a product of evolution, and it is experienced as a passing emotion in almost everybody. It exists to tell us that we are at risk of losing important social relationships, or that we might be thrown out of our group.

However, if we’ve been traumatized, then shame becomes indelibly interwoven with our implicit sense of who we are, whereupon our identity becomes “shame-based.”

There are several routes to becoming shame-based:

  1. Shame can originate outside of us — When we are made to feel inadequate by our family, caregivers, teachers, peers, culture, or socio-political environment, we absorb that shame and make it our own. In this case, being shamed constitutes the original painful and frightening experience around which our trauma-world is built.
  2. Human infants need sensitive and responsive nurturing from caregivers — When this need is not met, children develop an embodied and nonverbal sense of being inadequate. They also develop an embodied and nonverbal sense of inadequacy around their actual need for nurturing — implicitly feeling that there must be something wrong with them for having the needs.
  3. Shame can originate inside us as a response to more overt traumatizing experiences — Painful and frightening experiences occur that have nothing to do with being shamed. However, we have evolved a need to understand why these things have happened to us, and for various reasons, we tend to believe that we are at fault. For example, children whose parents divorce commonly feel that if they had been “better,” their parents would have stayed together.
  4. Once we’ve entered a trauma-world, shame can be created in response to our own behavior — There are times when we know we are over-reacting. However, because we aren’t aware that our fear system is hyper-sensitive, we take our behavior as evidence of our own supposed inadequacy. In addition, when we bury parts of ourselves in order to make ourselves acceptable to others, we implicitly sense that we are being inauthentic, which in turn creates shame.

Irrespective of how our shame originates, once we’ve become shame-based, we can’t recognize shame for what it is. Thus, we see ourselves through a distorted lens. As a result, we are likely to experience ourselves as contemptible and feel a victim to our own believed inadequacy.

What Doesn’t Work to Heal Shame

In this state, we get sucked into a downward spiral of shame. We can become even more desperate to obliterate the parts of ourselves that we believe make us inadequate, redoubling our efforts to shame those parts into submission. However, when we use shame against ourselves, we retraumatize ourselves. Then, instead of fostering change, we reinforce the status quo and fortify the walls of our trauma-world.

At the same time, we try to cajole ourselves into success, believing that if we can force ourselves to become more than we are — or ideally perfect — then the gnawing pain of being shame-based will abate. However, if we are shame-based, then no amount of success will be enough. No matter what we do, we are never enough.

Being shame-based doesn’t only poison our relationship with ourselves, it also poisons our relationships with others. When we are shame-based, we will be terrified that if others get to know us, they will see us as the inadequate person we believe ourselves to be. In an unconscious attempt to prevent that from happening, we may put up barriers, push people away, and sabotage relationships. Alternatively, we may try to control others, hoping that we can prevent them from doing anything that might bring our shame to the surface.

We are generally not conscious of what we are doing, or indeed why we are doing it. However, we are left with a murky feeling that our relationships lack authenticity, trust, and intimacy. As a result, we feel increasingly isolated.

Also, because human beings are such a profoundly social species, when we don’t have meaningful relationships, we feel sub-human, and that, in turn, exacerbates our shame.

In short, shame creates more shame. Shame also generates isolation and fear. And shame reinforces the need to disconnect. Ultimately, shame keeps us locked in our trauma-worlds.

Tomorrow, in Part 4, we’ll explore what does work in healing shame

Photo sources: Pixabay.com

Nurturing parenting is an essential basic need of all children

“There is a sensible way of treating children. … Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task. Try it out. … You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it. … When I hear a mother say ‘Bless its little heart’ when it falls down, or stubs its toe, or suffers some other ill, I usually have to walk a block or two to let off steam. Can’t the mother train herself when something happens to the child to look at its hurt without saying anything…?” ~ Psychological Care of Infant & Child by James B. Watson, Norton Press, 1928

Reading this excerpt of a wildly popular parenting book from 1928, as you breastfeed your baby or cosleep with your toddler or cuddle with your preschooler or hug your preteen or put your arm around your teen’s shoulders, how do you feel it was like for your great-grandmother to be admonished for instinctively loving her child, only to be told that her instinct is exactly what would damage that child?

Parenting has come along way since 1928. john bowlby with richard bowlbyBy the time our grandparents were caring for their babies in the 1950s, psychoanalyst John Bowlby was making great strides in scientific circles with research demonstrating the enormous impact that nurturing — and lack of nurturing — had on child development. This important body of research has since greatly influenced parenting advice.

Eventually Bowlby’s work would be integrated into the ever-expanding domains of research, including breastfeeding science, that has sent a shock wave of nurturing-oriented parenting around the world.

In 1994, as our parents were caring for us at home, La Leche League Leaders and schoolteachers Lysa Parker and Barbara Nicholson cofounded Attachment Parenting International as a way to educate and support parents in raising children with abundant warmth and nurturing. The tide was still changing then, but today, we are free to nurture our children without a feeling of shame. We can kiss and hug them. We can let them sit on our laps.

best-gift-yourselfThe child-rearing “experts” just a few generations ago would be appalled at how today’s parent educators encourage affection, nurturing touch, and comforting of our children. Research has since established how incredibly beneficial — in fact, absolutely critical — to child development that we are nurturing toward our babies and children.

But the impacts of the hands-off approach to parenting that our great-grandmothers experienced has had far-reaching effects. Remnants survive still today. They’re there whenever someone asks us if our baby is sleeping through the night yet, or suggests we try “cry it out” to teach our baby to self-soothe, or warns us that holding our baby too much will spoil her, or insists that babies be weaned by their first birthday, or maintains that children be spanked, or advises any parenting approach that promotes so-called early independence and obedience over normal, healthy child development and sensitively met needs.

We hear it from our family members, our schools, our pediatricians, our politicians, parenting books that continue to be published influenced by this old-fashioned thinking despite the mountains of research to the contrary — ideas of how children should be raised, based on personal opinion rather than research-backed fact, subtle revelation of how our society is still scared of giving “too much” nurturing to our children. It’s a pervasive situation that still needs to be addressed.

janetThe fact is, nurturing isn’t damaging. Babies and children need nurturing like they need food or shelter — nurturing is an essential basic need — and they are biologically designed to expect and receive nurturing.

Nurturing parenting is actually easier in the long term than the hands-off approach first touted to our great-grandmothers and continued to be promoted in widespread advice, not only because responsive parents are not constantly fighting their own instincts and therefore undermining their confidence, but also because responsive parenting prevents future parenting lornaissues, like behavior problems, that arise from not meeting our babies’ and children’s biological needs. A child who grows up learning that his biological needs for nurturing will go unmet or be misunderstood is a child who will increasingly develop ways of communication and interaction that are less healthy in future relationships.

Nurturing parenting is an early investment whose payoff continues well beyond the short term. When a child’s biological need for nurturing is consistently met, positive discipline naturally emerges. The trust that children develop 865056_grand_mother_and_childas a result of having their emotional needs met sets a foundation of parent-child interaction that doesn’t have to rely on threats, shame, punishment, rewards, or other forms of coercion for behavior control.

Research and children unanimously agree that warm and nurturing parenting is not only optimal, but required for healthy development. The child’s brain develops in response to the care received, so children with less optimal caregiving are more likely to experience challenges not only in their childhoods but across their lifetimes.

Reams of research tell us the obvious: that high levels of family stress can contribute to profound effects on a child’s ability to learn, remember, emotionally self-regulate, and succeed in adulthood.

Many parents carry with them the unaddressed traumas of childhood with limited nurturing or harshness, passed down through the generations since their great-grandparents’ time. This trauma legacy may show up in subtle, or obvious, over-reactions or under-reactions to normal, healthy child behaviors. We silently pass the legacy to our children and their children when we fail to observe the effect on our families and instead find confirmation and justification in the surviving remnants of 1928 child-rearing advice still popular today.

Research is continually finding new ways to illustrate the impact of abundant nurturing on our children. Brain scans show physical differences between the shape and connectivity of different areas of the brain involved in socio-emotional and cognitive functioning. Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) studies outline shockingly common, everyday interactions and events that are processed, but remain unrecognized, as traumas that can increase risk of not only mental but physical illness. Tests on heart function and hormone levels reflect how the body reacts to emotionally stressful events that were previously assumed limited to our thoughts.

Increasingly, we are learning that our emotional psychology has as physical roots as our bodily health — and how much our experiences as babies and young children, especially, form a foundation that can either be stable and secure, or predispose us to a susceptibility of lifelong difficulties.

Attachment Parenting International works to bring a wide body of authoritative, decades-worth of scientific evidence, as well as emerging research, to support parents and influence professionals and society. The common theme of this research clearly points to the critical importance of nurturing our children and describes behaviors that can provide this type of caregiving.

The research calls for parents to examine their assumptions, expectations, and thoughts regarding child-rearing and to then make changes to how they view themselves, children, and parenting to better reflect their goals, values, and healing. Many parents choose not to do this — to instead parent on autopilot, which is easier than parenting with intention — but our unexamined, default modes of parenting are how family legacies of pain pass silently from one generation to the next.

support1Our children are worth the effort to do the best we can. They’re our future, and we want them to be ready and excited for that future, free of emotional traumas borne of parenting ideas of nearly a century ago. Your donation helps Attachment Parenting International support parents. Every dollar counts.

Is she too attached?

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Aug. 11, 2010, and centers on an issue that many of us know all too well — that of separation anxiety and Attachment Parenting.

baby-kiss-1395713-mMy 8-month-old daughter, Penelope, is going through a separation anxiety phase. If I walk out of her eyesight, even for a second — even if Peter, my husband, or someone else is sitting with her and playing — she cries. She is a mama’s girl right now.

When her anxiety first showed up, I was concerned. I thought, “Oh, what have I done?!” Is she too attached? Have I taken Attachment Parenting to an extreme and done damage? I thought, “Should I finally get a babysitter and leave her with someone other than my husband and ‘teach’ her to be OK” — which, of course, had been so often told to me by neighbors and some friends. I had also been told to simply let her fuss for a bit and not immediately pick her up and tend to her.

Luckily,  I snapped out of my doubt and regained my confidence before I heeded any of that advice.

Even if her behavior is not the stereotypical 8-month-baby-separation-anxiety-phase, and she simply wants me all of the time, that’s perfectly fine with me. I am her mother, she is my baby and we are still deeply connected through my breastmilk that I make for her. To me, breastfeeding feels like an extended, energetic umbilical cord. I hold her all day long; I sleep and cuddle with her all night long. I want to be in close contact with her, as much as she wants to be in close contact with me.

This is what is supposed to be happening. This is how mothering and baby rearing is supposed to be.

One of my most favorite books is the Continuum Concept. When I read it…before I was a mother when I was a nanny…it turned on a light bulb in my head. What a novel idea, that babies are expecting to be with their mothers at all times! They are expecting that Mama — or a really great almost-Mama substitute for the time being, like a fabulous nanny — is going to be right there, every step of the way.

I will admit that sometimes I dream of lounging by the pool, or going out to dinner and then (gasp!) a movie with my husband. But most of the time, I am thrilled to meeting my baby’s every need and demand. I love knowing that she has not once “cried it out” to go to sleep. I love knowing that she knows that if she communicates to me that she needs me, that I will be there, every single time. She completely trusts me, and that makes it all worth it.

We can do this in our sleep!

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Oct. 14, 2008, but so many parents through the years since and in the future can relate well to its message.

Nighttime has confronted us with some of the most challenging parenting moments we’ve faced so far, but being present for our now 14-month-old daughter at 3:00 in the morning is just as important as it is at any more reasonable hour.

Though it isn’t always as easy, or as pleasant, as engaging her in a silly song, or reading Counting Kisses again, she doesn’t stop needing us when the sun goes down.

Our nighttime parenting has evolved in response to our daughter’s needs — and our fumbling attempts to meet them.

The day she was born, she never left our arms until after midnight, when we laid her carefully in the plastic bassinet the hospital provided before turning in ourselves. As we gazed down at our brand-new baby girl, she spit up a little — and we froze at the terrifying idea that she could choke while we slept.

Without further ado, I scooped her up and climbed into the bed, where she slept in my arms, nursing on and off the rest of the night.

When we brought her home the next day, we carefully attached an Arm’s Reach Cosleeper to our bed, eager for her to sleep close to us. We were aware of the benefits of sleeping in close proximity from reading Dr. Sears’ resources — including decreased risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) — and the Cosleeper made us feel more comfortable about sleeping next to a newborn.

But the first time we lowered our sleeping infant onto its thin mattress, she awoke immediately, howling in protest. We tried again, gently easing her from our bodies to this space where we had intended for her to sleep, but she made it clear she had other ideas.

And so the Cosleeper was relegated to serving as a makeshift nightstand, until its eventual relocation to storage in the basement, and we began the process of trying to determine how to help our baby sleep.

As a newborn, she slept best semi-upright on our chests. When she was 5 weeks old, we discovered she was suffering from reflux, which explained her profound discomfort at lying flat on her back. But even after she outgrew the reflux at about 4 months, we still couldn’t seem to coax her to sleep for any significant length of time.

We made sure she wore comfortable PJs, was clean and dry, and had a belly full of breastmilk before bedtime each night. We tried putting her down in her crib and in her swing, with white noise and without, swaddled and unswaddled, on her back and on her side, with the nightlight on and off. And each time, about an hour after she succumbed to sleep, she’d wake and we would go try again.

We also tried cosleeping, hopeful that being close to us would provide her some comfort, but found that such proximity only stimulated her to fight sleep in order to nurse frantically all night. I awoke more than once to a find a puddle of my milk pooled under her head. So we’d try variations of other arrangements again, which would allow her to sleep more peacefully, if not for long.

We didn’t expect her to sleep through the night at 6 weeks, or even 6 months, understanding that night-waking is normal. We were more than willing to attend to her in the wee hours, and I was happy to nurse her more than once overnight.

But months of hourly — and occasionally more frequent — waking was wearing us down. Frustrated and exhausted, we stumbled through our days and nights, and desperately searched books on baby sleep for a solution. The mainstream consensus was clear: Our baby should be sleeping through the night by now, and if she wasn’t, we should “help” her by leaving her to cry it out.

We considered that advice but quickly concluded that cry-it-out methods weren’t compatible with the Attachment Parenting approach in which we believed.

Editor’s note: Parents, especially first-timers who are overwhelmed by the conflicting advice of well-meaning family members, doctors and popular parenting sources, need research-based safety information to help them make decisions for their family. Attachment Parenting International (API), in consultation with many experts in the area of infant sleep, has this information in the form of an Infant Sleep Safety Guidelines brochure and wants to get it into the hands of parents everywhere to ensure that all babies can be safe during sleep, at night and at naptime, regardless of whether you share sleep in the same bed, use a cosleeping bassinet, or use a crib.

At some point, we accepted that there probably wasn’t a silver bullet for our sleep struggles. The answer to the question of what to do for our daughter, a restless sleeper with high nocturnal needs, was simple and one we’d known all along: When she cried, we would respond. Every time.

Sometimes I nursed her as soon as she stirred. Sometimes her Dada snuggled with her or patted her bum softly until she drifted back into slumber. We continued to bring her into our bed, and finally, one night when she was almost 11 months old, she finished nursing, rolled over and went to sleep. It was the first night she’d actually slept next to me without nursing for a few hours, and she hasn’t been back in her crib since.

Cosleeping feels right for us.

Though she still stirs often throughout the night, just being beside us seems to lengthen each stretch of snooze. Finally we can comfort her without waking ourselves! And when she does arouse, if she isn’t easily soothed back to sleep, she nestles next to me and nurses, and we doze off together again.

Of course there are nights when we find ourselves exasperated at the fact that we haven’t enjoyed a night of unbroken sleep for over a year, but we are committed to giving her our presence even when it isn’t easy to do so. And when the sun comes up on her sweet face between my husband and me, I wouldn’t want any of us to be anywhere else.

Disclaimer: API urges parents to use good sense regarding the safety of their children. API publishes this information knowing that parents are engaged in the use of cribs and cosleeping in all its forms, and as such, API is committed to keeping children safe and healthy by providing the most current safety information available. API, its Support Groups, its sponsors and its partners assume no liability in the event of infant, child or parent harm and are held harmless from any harm, loss or legal arising from information they provide.

This week on www.theattachedfamily.com

Check out these new articles on The Attached Family online magazine, www.theattachedfamily.com:

Check out www.theattachefamily.com/membersonly (no login required!) for any of the featured articles, which also include:

  • What’s the Big Deal with CIO?
  • Healing Birth, The Second Time Around
  • The Toddler: ‘Baby on Wheels’
  • A Touch Today for a Better Tomorrow
  • A Lullaby Massage Riddle
  • The Daycare Dilemma
  • How to Use Family Meetings
  • Empowering Children with Choices
  • The Room of a Teenage Boy
  • Helping Children Become Independent
  • 10 Ways to Gently Respond When Children Say “I Can’t”
  • Does My Baby Need Routine Sleep Time?