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

Preparing for childbirth: The delicate dance between pushing out and letting go

Observing a friend struggling with, and complaining about, the last days of her pregnancy –constantly posting on Facebook about how she finally wanted her baby to make an appearance in the “real world,” listing details about all the activities she undertook in order to make this happen ASAP — made me reflect on the delicate dance that childbirth is. 

I get it. I’ve been there.

Ready to Push?

Feeling big — no, huge! Not being able to see my toes anymore, let alone tie my shoelaces. Feeling very swollen in the summer heat and out of breath after walking up the stairs to our apartment on the 4th floor. Rolling around on the mat in my prenatal yoga class feeling like a huge whale. Nights spent sleepless with heartburn, an active baby in the belly, and a bladder that never wanted to go to sleep.  

And then, there is all the excitement about finally getting to meet this tiny human being that you have lovingly and patiently grown in your belly for all these long months. The excitement about becoming a parent — for the first, second, third… time. There are all the people around you, asking when the baby is due — which does not really help or make waiting any easier — and so many other good reasons to finally push the baby out of your belly and into the world. 

But First…  

But there is another side to the story, which tends to be forgotten or at least does not enjoy a lot of spotlight.

A more delicate, more sensitive — even darker — side that might not be as limelight-worthy or Facebook post-worthy…a side, which in my opinion, is just as important as the “push side.”

It is the side that mindfully focuses on letting go.

On gentleness, on feeling, on making space for the baby to come into this world…and making space for what is to come and follow.

On becoming aware of and consciously reflecting what is transpiring inside of us: physically, spiritually, and emotionally. 

Facing Our Feelings

This includes facing our anxieties and deepest fears and doubts about birth and about parenthood, about our ability to “do a good job” at delivering and then protecting, nurturing, and growing this delicate, wonderful new being that we already love more than we could have ever imagined. It may also include acknowledging and confronting our fear of failure, our fear of pain, our fear of loss, and our fear of fear. 

Furthermore, it includes facing the reality that things are (again!) about to change tremendously. That not only our everyday life is about to get the next big overhaul, but also our whole universe: The way we relate to the world, and the way we relate to ourselves is going to drastically change.

It includes coping with our bodies changing — yet again — from the pregnant state to a postpartum state, which will look and feel very different from what we are accustomed to and from what we might actually enjoy or expect seeing and feeling. We might feel empty, tired, depleted, sore, and possibly a far cry from attractive and sexy for quite a while.  

I vividly remember mourning my “empty“ belly for several days following my daughter’s birth. It felt empty and somewhat sad to not feel my baby inside my belly anymore. While I was certainly very happy to finally be able to hold her and cuddle up with her in my arms, I missed this innate and exclusive feeling of connection to her.  

Bringing Together the ‘Pushing Out’ and the ‘Letting Go’

I believe that, in order to consciously and mindfully prepare for birthing our child, it is important to take the time to look at and ideally merge both sides of the equation: the “pushing out” and the “letting go.”  

The tiredness of being pregnant and the energetic eagerness to have baby out of my belly have certainly helped me tremendously in getting over my fear of giving birth and all the pain that would be — and certainly was — involved. However, being mindful, open, and receptive to the side of letting go, creating space, and facing anxiety, doubt and fear — even mourning during this transition — has certainly proven to be very helpful as well. I believe it might be one supportive part in the puzzle of alleviating or possibly even preventing feelings of the “baby blues.” 

So, I’m calling on all expecting moms: Take a deep breath and give yourself a mindful moment — and ideally many more — and some space to merge both ends of the continuum. By doing this, you will be giving your body, mind, and spirit a chance to holistically and soulfully prepare for what is to come instead of forcing it into birthing-action mode.

Photo source

We have to be seeking growth to be able to experience it

The gift of opening my heart

How an insecure childhood attachment affects a marriage…and what you can do about that

This summer, my husband and I will celebrate 15 years together. It has been a wild, sweet, frustrating at times, unforgettable ride through the years. I thought it would’ve grown easier over time. In some ways, it has. In other ways, it hasn’t.

I’m learning that is exactly how marriage is. It’s a relationship, and all relationships — as we know from our parent-child relationships — take work. Marriage isn’t something you can just get to a plateau and let it slide from there. If you’re not working on your marriage relationship — just as if you’re not working to continually strengthen your parent-child attachment relationship — it immediately begins to fall away. You always have to make it a priority and problem-solve to keep it a priority, despite whatever our lives throw our way.

However, there is a key difference between a marriage attachment bond and a parent-child attachment bond. With children, they are hard-wired to seek attachment with us and so learn to adapt how they seek that attachment from how we teach them — intentionally or inadvertently — to do so. This is why children who are overtly abused continue to feel love toward their abusive parents — the children are adapting out of their need for survival, and attachment to parents is as much a component of survival as air and food.

With our spouses, the attachment bond is different. One spouse doesn’t need the other for survival as strongly as we need air and food — we each have grown into an adult who is able to self-assure our survival — so each spouse isn’t subconsciously adapting to the other’s cues for what is acceptable or not in that relationship.

This means our adapting to one another’s attachment-seeking and keeping style has to be much more intentional. If we are not mindful about how to consciously adapt to one another’s style of relating, our subconscious attachment styles developed in childhood will reign in the relationship. Much of the time, this may not be a problem. Especially if you developed a secure attachment style as a child, relating to your spouse may be relatively easy.

But, especially if you developed an insecure attachment style as a child, you may have difficulty in relating to your spouse — and vice versa — particularly during conflict, while distressed, or when stressed-out. This is when the very common anxious and avoidance traits of insecure attachment are most prominent, and can be hardest to overcome.

When our ingrained attachment needs are triggered, such as during a conflict with our spouse, it can be difficult to rise above our knee-jerk, subconscious reflexes to shut down/run away or worry/cling — relating tendencies that insecurely attached children learn to be able to maintain attachment with their parents, but these same tendencies don’t work so well in other relationships like marriage.

Spouses, especially those who grew up with insecure attachments with their own parents, have to learn how to rise above those ingrained attachment reflexes to be able to adapt healthily to their spouse. The more we practice it, the more it rewires our brain in new, healthy ways to seek and strengthen attachment with our spouse without resorting to the insecure attachment tendencies from our youth.

This takes hard, hard work. But it’s so worth it.

As we observe Marriage Week, February 7-14 in the United States, Attachment Parenting International (API) reminds you of the incredible importance of seeking out like-minded support not only for parenting but also for your marriage. API offers many resources for couples, including these favorites:

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Weekly Reflection: Voicing your opinion goes a long way

This week’s API Reads Weekly Reflection focuses on the importance of parents voicing their opinions to their partner in a competent way. As you read the quote, take time to reflect on what it means to you, how you can incorporate its meaning into your family, and how it encourages you:

“Children who watch both parents competently voice their opinions realize that both men and women have something important to contribute. Research studies show that when parents are able to disagree without becoming angry, the children are rarely affected in adverse ways. In fact, children from these homes do better in school and have higher self-esteem than do children whose parents’ negotiations of differences escalate into bickering and hostile fights. Children who watch their parents communicate effectively and respectfully are able to more successfully negotiate with peers and have an important headstart in knowing how to resolve differences productively in the intimate relationships they will develop when they grow older.” (Page 136 of 210 in eBook edition)

What Children Learn From Their Parents’ Marriage: It May Be Your Marriage, but It’s Your Child’s Blueprint for Intimacy” by Judith P. Siegel PhD

 

Children communicate their needs through behavior…what is your child communicating?

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