In this chapter we’ll be looking at the specific reasons WHY most people end up feeling the negative aspect of shame, rather than remorse – the positive side of shame.
And one point to keep in mind – shame exists on a continuum. From remorse, on the high end, to debilitating and imprisoning shame on the low end. You could be anywhere on this scale – from the liberating and character-building remorse all the way down to the gut-wrenching and crushing shame that damages you in so many ways.
Here’s the four main categories of why we so often end up somewhere on the low end of the shame continuum.
(And as you’ll see, all four of these ways interrelate to one other. You can’t have one without the other.)
1. We’ve been taught and conditioned to feel the painful shame, instead of remorse.
Our parents, for the most part, were shamed by THEIR parents. And our grandparents were shamed by our great-grandparents. And they were shamed by their parents. And the cycle started long before then. Where it all began, nobody knows…
Each generation passes down their shame to the next one. It’s passed down as part of the HERITAGE. It’s not genetic. It’s tradition. It’s patterns of behavior.
And it’s going to continue to be passed down, until individuals make the conscious effort to STOP the shameful behavior. (Which we’ll be looking at in later chapters.)
Getting back to the parents..
When a person is filled with shame, they often go looking for another shame-based person to take away the shame they deny is even there. Once they find someone, it commonly becomes a case of ‘love at first sight’. There’s often an immediate fascination with the other person.
Usually, a shame-based person will pair up with another shame-based person. Each expecting the other to take away their shame. When it doesn’t happen (because it’s not even possible) then the couple may decide to have a child.
“If we just have a baby, that child will somehow take away the shame we won’t even admit we have.”
Then once they have the child, they begin to dump their shame onto that child. And there you are; the recipient of shame from parents who would never even admit to having any shame in the first place.
Everyone has some shame. But the shame-based person, the person most afflicted with negative shame, denies having ANY shame. They are ‘shame-less’.
And this shamelessness exhibits itself through the act of dumping the unrecognized shame onto others. Usually, it’s dumped onto those who can do absolutely nothing about it; such as young children.
A few people in the world were able to shrug off their parent’s shame, or else it wasn’t too severe. But for most of us, we were saddled with either a debilitating or a wounding or an imprisoning shame.
The shamelessness expresses itself in one of two ways.
(1) Acting as the super-human, the more-than-human parent.
Perhaps this ‘super-human’ behavior comes from trying to be perfect.
“I’m not going to be like my parents. I’m going to everything perfectly.”
“I’m going to be the perfect parent.”
This super-human parent will make no mistakes. Or rather, they will not admit to making any mistakes. So if there’s something wrong with the child, “hey, it’s not my fault! I did everything perfectly!”
Or, they could be the controlling parent.
“I’m going to control every aspect of my child’s life so they will HAVE to turn out right.”
“I won’t let them out of my sight. I’ll know everything they do at all times.”
Since control doesn’t work anyway, they have no chance of succeeding. And the child who’s not perfect again gets the blame for being human, instead of being some sort of fantasy ‘perfect child’.
A third way of acting super-human involves righteous behavior. The parent who’s always right. Who never makes a mistake. The parent who’s never wrong. Always acting righteous – whether it’s righteous anger, righteous indignation, righteous hurt, or some other expression of their ‘right-ness’.
And finally, some parents become the overachieving parent. The super mom or super dad who ‘works hard and plays hard’. Always driven to excel and achieve. And always expecting the child to follow in their footsteps.
Now whether you were the ‘perfect child’ or the ‘controlled child’ or the ‘righteous child’ or the ‘overachieving child’ – you can’t possibly feel good about yourself. You’ll feel hollow and empty and always believe “there’s something wrong with me”.
Because you were forced to live up to demands you couldn’t possibly live up to. You were forced to be responsible for things you couldn’t possibly be responsible for.
You had to be responsible for your parent’s shame. You had to be an object they could show off to others. You had to take away their shame. And since you can’t do that, you end up feeling flawed and defective.
And all you wanted to do was be a kid…
One final point: just because your parents acted as ‘controlling parents’ – for example – that doesn’t mean that you will end up as a controlling person yourself. Often times, the child will attempt to ‘push off’ from their parents and act in opposite ways. So it’s not always a ‘straight-line’ relationship.
And the super-human parent can produce a sub-human child (and vice-versa.)
(2) The second way to be shameless – the sub-human parent.
This is the more commonly understood type of shame-based parent. For example, the raging parent who explodes at the slightest provocation. Screaming and yelling over nothing.
So you, as a child, must always watch everything you say and do, or incur their wrath. If you spill the milk, or do any of a hundred other things that kids always to do, it’s like the world has come to an end.
You’re not allowed to be a kid and make mistakes.
A second kind of sub-human behavior: the abusive parent, which so often comes out of the rage. It could be the obvious physical abuse, or verbal abuse, or sexual abuse, but also the less-obvious emotional and mental abuse.
Another type of sub-human behavior comes from the abandoning parent. Sometimes it’s physical abandonment, where one parent just up and leaves. Or it could be they simply retreat in whatever way – so it becomes a case of emotional and mental abandonment.
Whether your parents were sub-human or super-human, the end result is the same. You are TAUGHT – you are given the message – that you are no good, you’ll never amount to anything, and you’ll never measure up to some sort of imaginary standards.
2. We’ve been abandoned – and that produces shame.
The second way we end up feeling shame instead of remorse comes from being abandoned. Every person who suffers from shame was abandoned in some way. Either one or both parents left, or else they retreated in some other fashion. Even the death of a parent produces feelings of shame in a child.
Or the parents could retreat into work, or drinking, or some other obsessive or addictive behavior. They could retreat into pity or judgments or blame or rage or…
But in some way, they were not present.
And this act of abandonment not only teaches the child “there’s some problem with me or they wouldn’t have left” but it also infuses shame into the child. Like taking a needle and filling it with shame and injecting it into the child’s arm.
3. The act of abuse itself also produces feelings of shame.
Abuse goes way beyond just teaching someone they’re bad and wrong and defective. Abuse, like abandonment, injects shame into its victims.
It’s very easy to overlook instances of abuse. You might remember repetitive statements such as “you’ll never amount to anything”. Or, “what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do anything right?”
But abuse also comes from forcing a child to be the mommy or daddy in the family. Or forcing the child to be responsible in other ways for things only a grown up can be responsible for.
Or trying to make the child be responsible for the parent’s shame.
Or it could be something like not giving kids the privacy they need. Making sexist statements. Projecting certain unhealthy attitudes onto the children.
Many offhand statements that would not affect another grownup can cause severe, long-lasting shame when said to a child.
Keep in mind, that to a small child, parental statements can seem like irrefutable truths. Young children, especially, look up to their parents as being god-like figures. The comments that parents make sink in.
Because of this a lot of abuse goes unrecognized.
4. The act of being wronged produces feelings of shame.
As if teaching shame, abandoning and abuse weren’t enough, just the fact that they are WRONG also produces its own shame.
Some things are just plain wrong. Some behavior is wrong. Some actions are wrong. And when you are wronged, that in itself produces shame.
Some behavior cannot be justified or rationalized away.
“Well, the parents had their own shame, that’s why they passed it on.”
No one HAS to pass on shame. It’s always a choice.
Many times, the energy of ‘wrongness’ itself gets passed on from the offender to the victim. But to a child, the energy gets perverted into – “I am the wrong one.”
“I am wrong. I must be. My parents wouldn’t treat me this way unless there was something wrong with me.”
The wrongness of the events become twisted and distorted and internalized until the child believes THEY are the wrong ones, instead of the events themselves being wrong.
TAUGHT. ABANDONED. ABUSED. WRONGED. These four ways always intertwine with each other. You can’t have one without the other. Taken together, they produce feelings of shame in a child, instead of the healthy feelings of remorse.
They produce feelings of being flawed, defective, ‘not good enough’, undeserving, unworthy.
These feelings ‘prove’ there’s something wrong with you.
At some point, when the shame becomes too much, the emotion of shame becomes the STATE of BEING of shame. It’s like you no longer feel shame, but instead you become shame.
Everyone feels shame, but not all take it to this extreme of becoming shame. If you get to this extreme state of ‘being’ the shame, it will eventually kill you. People die from shame all the time.
In the next chapter, we’ll look at exactly WHAT shame does to you… all the ways it hurts you and damages you.
In the meantime, if you’d like some personal attention in dealing with shame, it would be my pleasure to help you. Just go to -
Mark Ivar Myhre
The Emotional Healing Coach
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