How Shame Forms in our Childhoods
Updated: Sep 26, 2020
A look at the development of shame in the child's mind and body.
I am a new mom and there have been many ways that my baby, Eliza, has been my teacher as I continue on my journey of thinking about and processing the idea of shame. When Eliza has a need, she simply asks for it to be met. A hunger in her belly, she cries out for food. If she topples over and hits her head, she immediately bellows out her pain and is not satisfied until she has been scooped up and comforted. There is zero awareness or thought of “Is this ok to be asking for this?” “Should I maybe hold in my need for comfort and connection until it’s more convenient for my mom?”
If you've ever observed a child playing outside, you might marvel at the freedom with which they move their bodies through space. They do cartwheels, play tag, and roll down hills. Nothing making them afraid. Nothing telling them to be more contained.
Until something DOES start to tell them that very thing.
Let’s fast forward to Eliza being 3 years old. Let’s imagine that Eliza is running around in my house. She is being 100% her authentic self. She is laughing and playing. She comes bounding up to me, arms outstretched as I sit on my couch and jumps right onto my lap, but as she does so she spills the contents of my wine all over our white couch. I turn to her and yell out in frustration, “No, Eliza! Bad girl” She shrinks back and starts to cry. I am too mad to give her comfort and huff off to the kitchen to get the upholstery cleaner.
What does Eliza internalize then? “Something about my being free and silly and fun was bad? My mommy looked very angry at me. What did I do that made her so mad?” Probably nothing even quite that formed- she's only 3 after all. So maybe just a body reaction. A burst of adrenaline, a sinking feeling in her stomach, hot red cheeks, and an urge to cry.
And a memory formed
Her body has begun the process of realizing it can be "bad" when it operates naturally.
One incident of my frustration might not do much to form shame in Eliza but these experiences, of course, stack. The wine spill is just one moment in a series of experiences. The best of parents with the greatest of intentions cannot prevent shame from forming in their child. Even if it were somehow miraculously the case that my husband and I could keep any level of a shame experience from her thought life by perfectly meeting her needs and modulating our own responses to her (a laughable thought if you know how I get when I am tired or hungry), she will still learn to experience shame through other interaction. Be it the child who makes fun of her on the playground, or a cousin that says they don’t want to play with her, or a teacher calling her out in class, she WILL learn shame.
Rules and structures are a part of how we function in this world. It would be deeply UNLOVING for me to not show Eliza the path of how to function successfully in this world. And that means showing her how to contain, how to follow rules, how to clean up, share, not hit, and not scream.
The problem is the child brain CANNOT separate the idea that I can do the "wrong" thing without it being connected to the idea that therefore there is something "wrong with me".
Let me say that again, because this is really important. The child brain cannot separate the idea that I can do the "wrong" thing without there being something "wrong with me"
Its action versus identity. And the child brain internalizes mistakes as an identity marker. So why is this?
Forgive me as I geek out a little bit on the world of developmental psychology. I promise it won't be too painful a journey. We are going to intrude a big word and that word is: Egocentrism.
Egocentrism is the idea that the child and adolescent brain is wired to see and understand the world from its own perspective. The younger a child is the more difficult for them to understand the idea that “my experience is not your experience” and as such when emotionally charged things happen to a child or teen they have only their own concepts to interpret those experiences. If I yell at Eliza in the moment my wine is spilled, there is no ability yet for her to understand the fact that maybe I’ve had a long day, or haven’t slept much, or have been cleaning up messes all day and I was finally sitting down to relax. She has no knowledge that mom will be fine in twenty minutes when she’s poured herself another (slightly bigger) glass of wine. Eliza’s understanding will eventually become something along the lines of, “When the people in my life become angry, sad, or scared it’s because of ME.”
So egocentrism = the idea that the child brain is wired to see the world as revolving around them. Therefore, when a scary, or threatening, or punishing thing happens to them or even around them their brain is programmed to understand this from their own limited perspective
-mom and dad are fighting->
Child's egocentric brain: Its probably because of ME
Reality: They are fighting because they are financially strapped right now
- dad just yelled at me for forgetting my lunch box.
Child's egocentric brain: I'm a failure
Reality: Dad is externalizing his anger. He knows it was his job to remind you.
- my teacher never calls on me in class
Child's egocentric brain: Its because she doesn't like me.
Reality: She is trying to draw from the more shy students in the class.
As the child grows, they will begin to expand their ability to think from other's perspectives, but the damage done to the inner psyche is often already cemented by the time their brains stop developing at 25. They have written a script by then of their own inner "badness" that is rout, conditioned, and unconscious.
Just for fun let's introduce one more phrase: “Disney Movie Philosophy” Oh you haven’t heard of “Disney movie philosophy”? That’s because I just made it up right now! But what I mean by “Disney movie philosophy” is the idea that the child brain is oriented to see the world in black or white terms. Things are easily dichotomized into "good" and "bad", "right" and "wrong", "success" and "failure", "win" or "lose". Finding the in-between or grey area doesn't come until later in their development. Try explaining the idea of a “white lie” to a child and you’ll quickly see this demonstrated. Lying is simply “bad” and there is little room for the nuance that I could tell a lie and have it serve a good purpose.
We continue to promote this “black and white” thinking when we show children Disney movies. In Disney movies there is a “good guy” and a “bad guy”. There is Cinderella and there is “The Evil Step-mother”. There is the sweet, innocent Sleeping Beauty or there is the jealous Sorceress. There is either pure good or there is pure evil. So what happens when I, as a young person, do “bad” things? How do I begin to internalize the “why” of that? The idea that the child brain is driven to dichotomies that relegate actions into one of two categories: “good and bad” with no ability yet to understand the nuance of “I can be a good person that sometimes does bad things” further embeds this idea about shame. “I do the wrong thing because something is wrong with me. ”How can I be Snow White when Snow White is never “bad”. If I am not Snow White, then what am I?"
So let’s go a little deeper into the environments a child can grow up in that are riddled with shame.
Let’s imagine Eliza lives in a home where she has a verbally or physically abusive father.
Or she has a mother who is caught up in her own deep seated shame narrative and uses Eliza as a means to meet her own need to feel lovable by making constant emotional requests.
Or she lives in a rigid religious community that constantly communicates that her natural instincts, curiosities, and intuitions are fundamentally flawed, evil even?
Or what if she is born with Black skin and the world that surrounds her is consciously and unconsciously sending her the message on a daily and consistent basis that who she is is naturally less valuable than the kids who have white skin in her community?
Or she is born with a sexual orientation that doesn’t match what is considered “right” by her family or community?
What happens to her shame levels then? Given what we already established about egocentrism (my limited ability to offer nuanced interpretations of other's actions) and “Disney Movie Philosophy” (my propensity to see the world in terms of good and bad), how does she make sense of those harmful actions? What kind of work does she eventually have to do to undo those messages? What might she look like as an adult?
As I have have come to observe, she will follow one of three overarching stances in relating to her shame as an adult:
She'll cower her way through life constantly trying to stay agreeable, good, and easy to digest.
She'll develop effective shields mostly made up of her anger and distrust of others that will divert any perceived attack on her.
She'll disappear into her mind where she can lock herself away from the experiences of her youth.
On some level this is all of us.
We are all reading off of the scripts that were written by our childhood author.
"So where is the good new in all of this, Miss Debby Downer?!?" I promise there is good news. There is great news in fact! And it is this, you can return to your childhood state! The YOU that was you before your learned it wasn't safe to be that version of yourself. You can experience a rebirth if you will. A do-over on life where you hit the refresh button and become reacquainted with the you that has always been in there.
The you that know it deserves to be marveled at.
The you that wants to play, create, and be silly again.
The you that knows your worth.
But there is no magic wand for this. This will require your loving, intentional effort.
The humans that learn to delve into the recesses of their shame experiences and begin to rewrite those shame scripts are the bravest people I have ever met. The work they do is some of the most gut-wrenching, soul stripping, and worldview annihilating work you can find. They are the people I most admire. They are the people I want to learn from, grow under, and be lead by. If you choose to do this work, I call you brave because you are brave.
So the question is, are you ready to dive in and heal your shame?