The Influence in Life of Early Recollections of Shame

First Memories of Shame May Reflect a Sense of Self as Defective

Posted Aug 25, 2019

Top view of plain oatmeal.
Source: Flickr

        Early recollections as a projective technique reveal pleasant and unpleasant stories among diverse individuals over the lifespan.   Shaming remembrances typically involve negative experiences of receiving harsh criticism or rejection from others.  For a number of persons, the memory crystallizes feelings of inferiority and a sense of being defective.

        As an example of an early recollection with a central focus of shame, Evan, a 30-year-old home healthcare worker, recalled the following:  "I was about 5 years old and had eaten most of my oatmeal.  I wanted to bring the bowl to the kitchen sink to help out.  When I walked away from the table, I tripped a little and dropped the bowl on the floor.  My father started screaming at me for making a mess.  He got a wet rag and began cleaning up the oatmeal with his foot."  Evan said that the most important part of the memory was, "Being yelled at as my father was cleaning up the oatmeal."  At that point, Evan related that he felt, "Ashamed that I had done something really bad, even though I was trying to help out."

        In interpersonal relationships, Evan often feels defective and blameworthy.  He frequently experiences others as critical or rejecting, and events present risks for being rejected or passed by.  In order to minimize the possibility of exclusion or rejection, Evan tries to avoid situations in which he may be scrutinized or criticized.  This typically includes numerous social and occupational activities, and as a consequence, Evan experiences a pattern of loneliness and depression.

        In the case of Evan, the central theme in his early recollections relates to shame, and he is not able to recall pleasant memories that may ameliorate some of his negative feelings. Counseling is essential for him in order to establish an empathic relationship that forms a basis for therapeutically working through issues relating to a sense of inferiority. 

        For any person, a shame-based early recollection evokes unpleasant affect, and by evaluating how the remembrance continues to activate distress is a sound consideration.  This may involve attempting to address feelings around the memory with a trusted individual or seeking professional support.  

        From a broader perspective, how does a shame recollection contribute to core beliefs that hinder the functioning or fulfillment of a person?  As human beings, we cannot chose first memories that are pleasant or unpleasant  Yet, we can constructively attempt to come to terms with how early childhood recollections continue to influence our lives. 

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