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Identifying the Root Causes of Shame

Shame is a heavy weight, but it can be dissolved.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “Shame on you!” you know how stinging and devastating it can be. Those words can leave you feeling awful about yourself.

Maybe it’s been a long time since someone caused you to feel shamed, but now you carry feelings of being unworthy and inferior. You chronically feel disappointed with who you are. You question whether you’re good enough, and maybe compare yourself unfavorably to others.

Time and again, as I have worked with people weighed down by shame and its consequences. But let’s discuss where shame starts.

Shame has various root causes. Sometimes shame is instilled in early childhood by the harsh words or actions of parents or other authority figures, or from bullying by peers. Shame can stem from a person’s own poor choices or harmful behavior. Other times unfortunate circumstances—such as poverty or chronic physical illness—plant seeds of shame. However, shame is much more than an uncomfortable feeling or a response to a humiliating event. Shame is a toxic emotion that drives an array of unhealthy attitudes and actions.

Though shame can begin in multiple ways, research studies – and an accumulation of personal stories – have revealed several prevalent sources. Below are 5 potential sources:

Toxic Parents

Recently, I read a social media post that was insightful. The post read, “Be careful how you speak to your children, for your words become their inner voice.” This one sentence managed to concisely summarize what child psychologists have been saying for years. Parents who joyfully and consistently attune to their children send the message that these young ones are worthy of connection. Children in these families trust that they can advocate for their emotional, social, and physical needs, and those needs are likely to be met. Over time, these children grow into adults who are sure of their own worth.

It would be wonderful if every child had such an upbringing. The reality is, the world is both broken and beautiful, and this is on full display in the home. Most parents try their best to love, nurture, and support their children. But sometimes, those efforts fall short of supplying children with what they need to develop lifelong self-esteem. And although the effects of emotional malnourishment are harder to spot, they are just as real and long-lasting as the physical kind.

Perhaps the most destructive mistake parents make is conflating a child’s actions with her character; equating what a child does with who she is.

Abandonment or Rejection

People are wired for connection. We need genuine community. So what happens when an interpersonal connection is severed?

People experience abandonment and rejection for countless reasons. Families are torn apart by divorce, death, war, immigration, and deployment. Children perceive any loss as personal, no matter the cause. This belief has tragic consequences. It’s common for children to take responsibility for their parents’ divorce by thinking things like, “If only I had been better behaved, Dad would have stayed with Mom.”

Such a burden is far too heavy for a young person to shoulder. By the time this child reaches adulthood, he will be accustomed to accepting responsibility for events he has no control over. If we didn’t shoulder the blame for our own abandonment, we might have to place the burden squarely on the shoulders of someone we dearly love—and that is often harder than incurring the blame ourselves.

Shame causes us to pull away from relationships, believing that we are bad for other people and unworthy of their love. Ironically, the experience of being abandoned often leads people to self-imposed exile.

Unhealthy Environments

Every workplace, organization, group, and team has a distinct culture that develops over time. This is characterized by the way people interact, the energy displayed when people are together, the respect or disrespect shown to each other, the camaraderie or hostility, and many other factors.

An unhealthy work environment can be shame-inducing because employees begin to wonder what they’ve done to deserve such treatment—and worry that they’re unimportant. Worse, bosses sometimes use shame, manipulation, and passive-aggressive tactics, which may motivate employees in the short term but ultimately leave them demoralized.

The workplace is just one example. A school can be an inspiring place to learn or a viper’s nest of bullying. Sports teams can be encouraging or critical. Peer groups can be supportive or distressing. We are deeply influenced by the people we spend time with. When we feel that we matter, we develop a strong sense of identity. But when we feel unimportant or burdensome to others, we naturally take responsibility and internalize shame.

Traumatic Experiences

Trauma is any experience that overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope. Young children require constant attention and care, in part because they are physically helpless and psychologically vulnerable. When something overwhelms a child’s ability to cope, she needs a safe adult to come alongside her and help her feel secure again.

Children grow into resilient adults when they face hardship with the support of a caring adult. Without such a caregiver, a child who faces an overwhelming experience can feel powerless and ashamed. He may believe that these circumstances befell him because he was fundamentally flawed and unworthy of goodness. Sadly, childhood abuse often leaves survivors feeling irreparably marred, leading to thoughts such as, “Mom drank because I was such a disappointment to her. I’m still disappointing the people I love.”

I have heard stories like these countless times in my work with clients, and each one is heartbreaking. When it comes to trauma, the initial event is often harrowing, but the lingering shame is most devastating. But as with other sources of shame, we can be free from trauma-induced shame as we learn to replace the false perceptions we had as children with a true picture and understanding of the painful experiences in our past.

Personal or Moral Failures

I’ve listened to many clients who believe they deserve to feel shame due to their own indiscretions and moral failings. These people are locked inside a prison of their own making, and shame is the warden. They live as though shame’s constant reminders will ensure that they don’t make the same mistake twice.

It can be difficult to help these people heal from shame, because shame serves a function in their lives while at the same time causing them misery. Self-compassion is key for these people, and it is possible to foster self-compassion while also accepting responsibility for what you’ve done.

Shame is an enemy that must be dealt with head on. It won’t go away by avoiding it. Hiding from shame with procrastination or trying to outrun it with “driving and striving” will not bring freedom from its stranglehold on your life. It must be defeated.

Each of us has a set of messages that replay in our minds. This internal dialogue or personal commentary frames our reactions to life and its circumstances. In order to sustain optimism, hope, and joy, we need to intentionally fill our thoughts with positive self-talk.

One of the most important techniques we use in therapy with those struggling with shame is to identify the source of these messages and then work with the person to intentionally overwrite them. If a person learned as a child that he was worthless, we show him how truly special he is. If a person learned while growing up to expect crises and destructive events, we show her a better way to anticipate the future.

Positive self-talk seeks to bring the good out of the bad to help you do better, go further, or just keep moving forward.

More from Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D.
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