Infancy is a minefield of shame stimuli. Your impressionable mind is a sponge for meaning – and invents meanings for things all the time, even if it means that you’re to blame for something that’s not your fault. Which is often convenient for the shame-ridden adults.
As kids, we’re desperate for approval, love, caring and attention. We need it to be looked after and to survive.
So anything that threatens that support quickly becomes something to be feared.
Not being good enough for love or caring.
Annoyingly, our unconscious minds are suckers for giving meaning to things where we don’t really know the truth. From these imagined meanings, all sorts of bad nonsense gets learned and gradually turns to feelings of shame.
Parents shouting at each other?
It must be your fault. Therefore you’re not good enough.
A new-born sibling getting all the attention?
You’ve been abandoned – obviously something wrong with you.
Lost a favourite toy?
You didn’t deserve it in the first place.
Dad always away on business?
You’re not worthy of his love and attention.
Bullied at school?
You’re not likable enough, you’re not good enough, you’re broken. You don’t deserve friends.
Teacher told you off in front of everyone?
You’re not good enough, and worthy of ridicule. You don’t deserve approval.
Of course, all these meanings are irrational, subjective meanings applied to events.
“It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what those events mean”
Of course, applying meaning to events isn’t always accidental. Shaming behaviour is often very intentional – even if its not really meant.
For example, a mom who is frustrated with her infant for crying, vomiting, feeling ill or not sleeping – could easily blame the infant without even realising it. Any frustration, anger or disapproval directed at another person is going to affect their shame levels, from a very early age.
When children start misbehaving, its all too easy for the child to get criticised and shamed rather than their behaviour.
Rather than “that was clumsy” or “you’re behaving rudely”, a child might hear “YOU’RE clumsy” or “YOU’RE rude – stupid – forgetful – a nightmare – annoying” – whatever.
When its a behaviour that’s being disapproved of, there’s something that can be done. The problem is just about the behaviour – and that can be easily changed.
When its the person that’s being disapproved of – well that’s harder to change. That kind of disapproval will just trigger feelings of shame, and is more likely to result in sadness, anxiety, and withdrawal.
Its no wonder that many people grow up with deep-rooted beliefs of being stupid, rubbish at maths, not good enough, forgetful, a “problem”, “unwanted”, not deserving of happiness – these kinds of suggestions might have been absorbed again and again by the unconscious mind. With strong emotions, from authoritive people (parents, teachers), with repetition, over and over.
It happens to be the perfect recipe for installing a belief system, and unfortunately it happens again and again by accident during our formative years – the very beginnings of our feelings of shame, to be repressed, triggered, protected and battled with for the rest of our lives.
School can be a volatile shaming experience
I remember school feeling like an incredibly strict environment. Kids were getting shamed all the time for simple mistakes or moments of natural forgetfulness (the kind that teachers themselves would get away with all the time).
I suffered from particular anxieties which whilst at the time made me feel “wrong”, I have since learned are actually very common.
A teacher once said to us all that we should get enough sleep or else we’d get black rings around our eyes, and not be able to work properly the next day.
This careless comment lodged itself firmly in my unconscious, leading to a fear of not being able to sleep. Not sleeping meant being tired the next day at school and having black eyes, which meant being disapproved of, which meant being no good and not being approved of and being rejected. As we’d just moved down to Devon from the Midlands, approval and fitting in were hugely important to me. I was only 8 and felt pretty vulnerable.
For about a year afterwards I would lay awake at night, trying to sleep, but of course not being able to relax enough to let it happen. The fear of not sleeping for the shame it might bring kept me awake, and I’d get really upset in the early hours of the morning. I remember waking up in the dark winter months, wondering if I’d slept at all, and feeling absolutely miserable about going into school as if I’d already failed.
I had a fear of criticism (fear of making a mistake, not being good enough), which would manifest as a shyness, not having the courage to speak up because I might say or do something wrong. It led to a stammer for a number of years which I was immensely frustrated to not be able to control, for fear of saying the wrong thing. It made it difficult to give presentations, talk to new people or make an effective argument.
I was anxious about school trips, worried that I’d forget something important or be late and get left behind.
I speak candidly of these experiences now because they’re behind me, and as an adult I appreciate just how common such situations are to consciously aware children. At the time, they were huge shame triggers that I wouldn’t dare talk about – which unfortunately is often the way with our anxieties for one reason or another despite allowing them to fester and grow further into our minds and lives.
Recently my 11 year old niece forgot a pencil in home-economics. She was then made to sit out of a following class where they baked scones. She missed out on a learning experience, and was made to feel like a humiliated “outsider”, because she forgot to take a pencil to class.
Is it going to make her remember to taken the pencil to class in future? Maybe – but its also going to make her feel bad about herself, attract unfair comments from her classmates, and she’ll probably hate the idea of ever baking scones again having associated the experience with feelings of shame.
These days I dread to think what kind of pressures school children have, and the kind of hostile shaming behaviour that is likely to go on.
Teenage pressures reinforce it
In adolescence, any shame carried over from childhood gets amplified even more.
You’ve now got identity beginning to take shape, feelings of sexuality, hormones, changes, incredible amounts of pressure to grow up fast enough and compete well enough.
For relationships, for grades, for sports, for parental recognition, for your all-important future, for being perfect enough.
Except no one’s perfect – and where you fall short, there are plenty of people, parents, friends, teachers and social-network provocations to remind you about it.
Of course there are plenty of opportunities to prove yourself and win approval and recognition too.
But what happens when the shame has been deep enough to create genuine negative self-beliefs?
That’s when the good moments start to have less impact.
It was just luck.
You’re a swot, that’s all.
They didn’t really mean that compliment, they don’t really know you.
Its just a dumb certificate.
Feelings of shame become a vicious circle – creating more feelings of shame and deflecting beliefs which would counteract the fears.
Various methods of shaming
Here’s a mini breakdown of the various ways that we get exposed to shaming in our earlier years.
Meanings given to events which we take personally
As listed above, when something bad happens, its easy to blame ourselves or absorb some negative meaning from it. Even if we have nothing to do with the real cause.
This is particularly so where family is involved – its all too easy to feel guilty and “not good enough” or unwanted, when other people aren’t happy, or arguing.
Whether we’re responsible for an action or not, we’re subject to shaming behaviour. Being made to feel that we’re somehow broken, or not good enough, as people.
Frequently this will be a convenient projection of someone else’s feelings of shame – part of the defensive reaction that comes so naturally.
Its happened a few times where I’ve been walking and an oncoming parent with a child is walking towards me. Not paying attention, the parent finally looks up from their phone to notice they’re about to walk into me – then yanks at their child and shouts something like “look where you’re going, stupid!” and yanks them out of the way. It sounds trivial, but if that’s the reaction when the parent is being unaware on a walk, what kind of things would be said throughout the rest of the day? Feelings of shame get passed down just as surely as DNA.
Neglect and being ignored
To not give someone due attention is one of the worse shaming behaviours there is. The basic message, which no doubt gets absorbed as the emotional meaning, is “you’re not good enough to warrant my love and attention. I don’t even care any more”.
Nothing stews the fear of disconnection more than disconnection itself.
Even if the meaning isn’t intended – e.g. with busy, hard-working parents – the lack of reassurance when together will make the feeling of neglect far worse.
Another vicious circle then begins – the child acting out to seek attention, being naughty as they begin to identify with not being worthy of caring. The parents may then become impatient, more distancing, more shaming, and the cycle continues.
Comparison with peers
When I was at school, I had a so-called friend who would regularly call round after school to show me the expensive new clothes or sneakers that his mom had just bought him. The intention was clearly to make me feel inferior, and I would.
I remember there being so many little competitive moments at school – how you covered your books, what pencil case you had, how good you were at sports, how girls responded to you. It was just as rife with politics and pressure as any phase of adult life, if not more so.
Childhood is an active, distracting, hopefully ridiculously good fun part of life.
There isn’t too much opportunity to really feel the full effects of feelings of shame (although they absolutely can start their destructive influence very early).
However, the deep unconscious programming of shaming moments stays there, deep in the mind.
Those inner beliefs about what a person expects for themselves, in terms of happiness, love and success.
What they feel they’re worth.
Those fears of one day being rejected, abandoned, unlovable, broken.
They’re all just waiting there, until life starts to get closer to those fears. Then, the shame triggers start happening, the feelings of shame start arising, and all the effects of shame start to manifest, spinning their vicious circles and continually making things worse.
It might sound dramatic, but then until you’ve been a therapist for a few years, you might not appreciate what personal hells a lot of people live in, the foundations of which were laid in childhood.
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If you have any thoughts, memories or observations from the past or present that you would like to share, then please do so!