From the Couch



Our relationship to shame is one of our most important psychological relationships to understand.  It dictates more of our actions than many other emotions.  While shame as an inherent punishment for bad behavior can make us aware of our limitations, when persistently evoked, shame can be one of the most disorganizing of all emotional experiences.  It can change the very way we see ourselves, generate a feeling of worthlessness, trigger self-doubt and self-criticism; and led to withdrawal from others, even from those closest to us.  It can even corrode the very part of us that believes we are capable of change (cf., Brene Brown, Ph.D.).  Shame can cripple our basic abilities to self-sooth.  It also can stifle our sense of creativity, our capacity for intimacy, and sense of inter-independence with others, and our autonomy.  It can even disrupt our sense of self-continuity across circumstance and time.

Surprisingly, many people who appear to have seamless lives of affluence and success present a false self and may be suffering from shame they keep hidden from others.  However, in masking feelings of shame, they not only hide their feelings from others, they also start to hide them from themselves.


Shame has many faces.  “Shame” can refer to an emotion, a thought, a feeling, an experience, a body sense, or an interpersonal reaction which may vary from the mildest social embarrassment to profound self-hatred that can become associated with a strong risk of suicide or violence.  Most commonly, however, shame refers to a sense of personal inadequacy–the feeling that, we are not “measuring up,” or that we are “lacking,” or being “too full of ourselves”.

We may be only indirectly aware of feelings of shame.   It may be disguised in forms of anxiety or depression.  We may react with annoyance, defensiveness, grandiosity, denial, or inability to work.  We may feel lost, or want to hide.  We may mask such feelings through use of mood altering substances, or experience detached states and varying forms of psychological disorder.


Starting from the state of being okay, something happens (some experience of transgression or perceived flaw or inadequacy) that leads to shame.   We may dwell on the event for some time, replaying mistakes over and over in our mind, and developing a distorted self-reinforcing loop of shame which feeds upon itself.  Thus, we may blame ourselves for events over which we had no control, and could not be responsible for and feel deep resultant shame. We may attack and shame ourselves before others may do so to avoid the hurt of being shamed.  In essence, we may tell ourselves, “If I assert that I am flawed before you can, you cannot hurt me as much.”  We may even come to feel ashamed of being ashamed.  Denial, excuses, self-pity, and excessive self-blame only make the situation worse.

If it lasts long enough, shame may become a core aspect of our sense of self, leaving us feeling that there is no way out.  The sense of badness thereby becomes “a core belief about who I am and not what I do” (Lewis, LMFT).  We may start to feel such things as “I am embarrassing and stupid.”, which is quite different from feeling “I did something really embarrassing and stupid”.  Hypersensitivity to even a simple faux pas can result, leading us to mentally return, “again and again to the painful moment in the attempt to eradicate the reality of the incident by magical means, i.e., to undo it.” (Kohut, MD).


Clearly, while most of us have occasional self-doubts, many of our more persistent,  punitive, and critical feelings about ourselves may stem from experiences in childhood–feelings of not being important enough, or lovable enough, or not being “seen” or “heard”.  Such early experiences can leave an imprint on the way we understand and feel about ourselves, about other people, and about the world, and can persist into adulthood even if we don’t remember the early events that may have triggered them.  This is because, as children, we do not have the mental processes to encode our very early experiences into a verbal or an autobiographical memory, such memories remain implicit and, therefore, cannot be later put into words.  These memories settle into our bodies and tend to surface later when triggered.  Thus, we may react intensely to something with no clear idea of why and not knowing that the reaction is to a memory stored in our body.  At best, we may have a global sense of things having felt “bad”.  We may vaguely “remember” experiences of being left alone, or remember a sense of periods of “uncomfortable silence”.  Such experiences, none-the-less, come to shape our later thoughts and feelings about ourselves, and ourselves in relation to others.


Internal negative voices may develop as a result.  Two may become especially quite prominent.  An EMOTIONALLY REACTIVE voice can develop which is defensive, conflict laden, helpless, pessimistic, and negative.  It asserts, “it’s not my fault”, “I don’t know what to do, I’m confused because I feel pulled in so many different directions”, “there is no solution”, and/or “things will never change.

The SELF-CRITICAL DEMANDING voice is authoritarian, directive and unhelpful, self-deprecating or punitive, shaming, guilting, defeated and/or threatening can also ensue.  It asserts, “My way is the only right way to solve the problem”, “simply do it regardless of what you feel!”, “you don’t deserve having what you need”, “you’re bad” “you’re a failure”, “you’ve disappointed others in the past and even disappointed yourself”, and/or “You should just give up”.

These voices (thoughts in our heads) promote angry and cynical attitudes toward others and a negative, pessimistic view of the world.  They undermine our ability to see things realistically; trigger negative moods, and sabotage our feelings of satisfaction and meaningfulness in life. They leave us feeling removed from ourselves and distant from those we love.  And, at times, we may be unaware of the operation of such negative thinking and simply accept what our negative critical voices are saying as being true.

(To combat these voices, notice when you find yourself slipping into a bad mood or find yourself becoming unexpectedly irritated or upset.  Accept the feeling without acting on it.  Ask yourself at such moments:  what caused the shift in your mood? What happened?  What did you start telling yourself after whatever the event was that occurred? Then, become open to considering whether you are possibly interpreting the event through your critical inner voices?  Consider what these critical voices would like you to do and then decide on whether to try adjusting your thoughts, mood states, and or actions is in order.)


Parents who have been emotionally damaged almost always experience their child’s tendencies toward independent self-expression as a personal attack and almost universally defend themselves by reinforcing their child’s dependence and helplessness.  Thus, instead of promoting healthy development, they unconsciously undermine it, often with the belief that they are acting in the child’s best interest (Forward, PhD).

With so little to constrain them, they set the “rules of engagement” for their children who depend upon them for attachment, love, protection, survival, and emotional structuring which contribute to their children’s sense of who they, themselves, are.

Fortunately, the good news in these instances is that not all adult children of emotionally damaged parents turn out to be severely emotionally damaged themselves.  The extent to which they manifest problems depends on the degree of severity of the parent’s dysfunction and on the presence or absence of ameliorating influences in their early life.  These can include loving grandparents who are frequently around, interested and involved teachers, other supportive and responsive adults, etc.

While parents do not need to be perfect, only “good enough” (Winnicott, MD), however, some parents may be so emotionally damaged and inadequate themselves that they turn to their children for core emotional support and comfort instead of being providers of it.  The children of such parents frequently come to think “If I don’t care for their needs, who will?” and come to feel tremendous shame and guilt his or her apparent inability to do so.  Other misattunements may also occur.

Physically Abusive parents often blame their children for their own uncontrollable behavior, leaving their children to be riddled with guilt and shame over circumstances beyond their children’s responsibility and control. Verbally Abusive parents can demoralize their children with criticism and rob them of their self-confidence.  Worse still, parents who are Sexually Abusive, whether flagrant or overt, destroy the very heart of childhood, instilling emotional confusion, lack of safety, and trust.

Parents who are Overly Controlling use guilt, manipulation, and intrusiveness to direct their children’s lives, meeting more the needs of the parent than it does meeting the needs of the child.  Children of such parents may work hard to please them and to gain their approval while often losing sight of their real job which is finding and figuring out their own authentic talents, skills, and interests, and this pattern may persist into adulthood.

Overly Demanding parents can cultivate perfectionistic strivings in their children resulting in a deflated or exaggerated false self sense of worth within them.  Overly Protective parents, unable to face their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, may never allow their children to develop their own skills at problem solving, or to develop adequate practical skills for navigating out in the world.

Parents who are Excessively Self-Centered, Emotionally Cold, and Attacking, invade their child’s autonomy and manipulate the child to conform to their wishes.  Such parents have little ability to empathize.  Their love is highly conditional and easily withdrawn.  Their children often come to feel that they are failures or they, themselves, may develop feelings of superiority in their own compensatory self-evaluation, and demand perfection in others.  Parents who are jealous or competitive with their children experience little or no real joy in their children’s accomplishments.

The Unconscious/Dissociated parent is often too distracted to respond to many emergent needs of his or her child.  The young child of such parents experiences little sense of mutual regulation and must rely on themselves for regulatory functions in the soothing and repair of dysphoric or conflictual moods, feelings, and behaviors.  This is highly problematic for very young infants as internal functions of soothing and repair are not yet fully available.  Their older children often experience the dissociated parent as communicating the message that their thoughts, and feelings, and even their selves are not worthy of attention.

Parents who are Disoriented/Disorganized produce chaotic behavior in their frightened children who sometimes may enter even a trance-state of “freezing” (Main et al) or activate incoherent, conflictual, and unstable emotional and mental states within their children.  The child’s ability to anticipate the parent’s behavior may become severely impaired as the parent makes unpredictable abrupt shifts in his or own state of mind, thereby inhibiting attachment to the parent and to any sense of security.

Children of parents who are Persistently Rejecting/Neglectful often resort to a state of despair, emotionally withdraw, and evidence excessively low energy.  Emotions of shame and hopelessness are often prevalent.  Over time, as these children become adults, this sense of despair can become easily activated in response to even minor signs of rejection (Siegel, MD).

Parents who are mired in Substance Abuse can not only fit into any of the above constellations, but may also fail to meet their children’s needs because they have little energy for the real demands of parenthood.


Misattunements between parents and their children happen frequently in childhood and such occurrences are not necessarily harmful, to the contrary they can be structure building in a positive sense, if repair or soothing is accomplished.  However, if a child is persistently criticized or is ignored, abandoned, or punished in some way for expressing basic states of need, wants, wishes, and feelings; or when such states are suppressed in the unquenchable service of meeting the needs of others, the results of such trauma can be devastating on the emotional well-being and psychological development of the child.  Shame-prone identities (Harper and Hooper) can develop and become painfully evident over time.  In such circumstances, the child becomes impaired in his or her ability to understand and process his or her own emotionally charged states, and, because they become “not acceptable.”  Constant fear of what others think of him or her, anxieties about being judged, or not being liked, emerge as a projection of how much he or she comes to judge and not like his- or herself.  Low self-worth, negative self-talk and harsh self-criticism, self-limiting beliefs, unrealistic expectations of self, and needing excessive reassurance, acceptance, and praise from others are byproducts.  Reluctant to express real feelings and needs, and shame-prone individuals come to feel embarrassed for even having them, and they come to live in a walking, waking, trance.


Even when parents may have failed to provide the essential emotional support which we needed as a child, nevertheless, freedom does not come from hating or despising them.  They were not necessarily intending harm.  Perhaps they did the best that they could, given the circumstances of their own lives.  Instead, try now to begin to love yourself in similar fashion to the way you needed to be loved as a child.  Try to reunite with the inner child of the past, experiencing feelings that have been previously numbed out and try to correct disabling misconceptions in order to loosen their grip on your present life.


We may still honor emotionally wounded parents, showing them kindness, civility, and respect; letting them know that we are still listening to them in many things they have to say; caring for their feelings; being thoughtful and attentive in response to their woundedness, accepting their limitations, and grieving the loss of a missing childhood connection with them, while setting boundaries in a healthy manner.  This does not mean continuing to place oneself in harm’s way.  For, some of us this may at times require actual physical and emotional distance and totally letting go of  present contact.


Next, don’t cling to shame and suffering.  Work to let go of old habits, modulating the voices of “guilt” and “shame,” facing fears of rejection, and sustaining efforts at healthy real-self expression.  During this process, harsh false-self defensive reactions may be reactivated.  Feelings of ineffectualness, inadequacy, and shame may emerge.  Defenses of clinging or distancing and even grandiosity may re-emerge in cycles before they can be resolved.


A thorough self-reassessment is required.  Start with the mindset that your feelings, whatever they may be, are valid and legitimate.  Keep in mind, that there were circumstances that created them.  The feelings you may have been carrying with you for a lifetime can’t just suddenly and magically go away, nor do they necessarily have an immediate resolution. Stay with them and ask what they are trying to tell you.  Give the feelings you remember having experienced a voice and try to be as truthful with yourself as possible.  Be patient and compassionate with yourself.  You may need to work hard to dampen negative tones.  If need be, imagine you are soothing a child who has come to you for help with his or her fear.

Return to the present.  Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?”  and “Is this a feeling about my past circumstance alone or is this a feeling from the past that that has become a habit over time?”  From these activities, several insights will begin to emerge. Try to progressively consolidate these and continue to do this process periodically.


Our inner critic can make any of us feel that it is impossible to do anything right, and can negatively impact and distort our experience of ourselves, others, and the world around us.  Generally, our inner critic is irrational and not constructive.  Ask yourself, “Whose voice am I hearing?”, “What happened to lead me to feel the way I am feeling?”, “What is familiar about this?”, “What does this remind me of from my past?”.  (These harsh messages may have been expressed explicitly, or more subtly or nonverbally—there can be great power in a look of disdain, contempt, or disgust.)

Knowing where such inner critical voices came from can help us to separate the past from the present, and help us to realize that what happened in the past is probably not what is happening now.  Mobilize that part of you that is non-judgmental, factual, open to questioning, positive, creative, and problem-solving, and remember that it is exactly where you feel most frightened and in the most pain that your greatest opportunity for personal growth lies.  Remind yourself that even small changes in your perspective, beliefs, mental associations, and internal dialogue can lead to large changes in your state of mind and behavior.  “Just because the voices say something, doesn’t mean it’s true”.  The voices that judge, belittle, or defensively limit us are never the voice of our real (healthy) self.  The voice of our healthy real self listens, takes chances, is imaginative, sees things in broad perspective, lives in the moment, and focuses on what is possible.  The challenge is one of embracing the voice of our healthy real self, while at the same time acknowledging (but not accepting) the judgmental and reactive ones.  With time and patience, we can learn how to do this with care and gentle self-guidance.

The simple exercise of counting the number of negative messages we give to ourselves in one day—with the aim of reducing them—can have a significant effect on how we perceive ourselves and the circumstances surrounding us.  Also having a close friend or caring partner to help us keep count may be quite useful as well.


Acknowledging and embracing one’s vulnerabilities (rather than denying them, or hiding them, pushing them away, or otherwise running away from and avoiding them) is a precursor to healing feelings of shame. This takes a real courage.  This requires the realization that vulnerability does not necessarily mean weakness.  It also requires setting aside concerns that others will reject us if we are vulnerable, and achieving the realization that especially when vulnerable, we are worthy of continued connection.  With such acknowledgement, we dampen our impulse to hide from others and to disconnect from our feelings, and enhance our willingness to share our thoughts and feelings with others more openly than before, even in the face of uncertainty of outcome.  Relating to ourselves kindly, especially in the moments of perceived failure, and recognizing that we are worthy of love in these moments, and trying to avoid excessively harsh self-judgments, does not mean that we simply excuse ourselves for anything wrong that we may do.

Giving ourselves grace allows us to more easily examine our behavior in non-harsh, non-overly critical, ways.  This will likely take time and practice.  Critical self talk can complicate the process.  Simply pushing away negative self-dialogues only makes them become stronger and their voices louder and more persistent.  Instead, be kindly attentive to all of your thoughts and feelings, and express them outwardly–cry, laugh, express anger or fear openly, or whatever emotion is in need of release. Giving expression to such emotions rather than trying to suppress them can have a relieving effect.

Remaining in the moment also can make something quite new and powerful happen—you may begin to feel freer, options may start to open before you that were not there before, and you may see things with more clarity and discernment about how you want to proceed.  As you do this, you may also find yourself becoming more aware of the intentions that motivate your behavior, and find yourself becoming more aware of the consequences of your actions, as they affect both yourself and others.  FINALLY, WHEN YOU FIND YOURSELF IN NON-PRODUCTIVE RUMINATION, RETURN TO THE PRESENT.

Copyright © 2017 Sherron Lewis, LMFT and Shelley Stokes, Ph.D.

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