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"You Should Be Ashamed!"

Why DNA surprises trigger shame in families.

Learning about a genetic surprise is a shock to everyone involved, bringing a range of emotions, namely shame. Whether late discovery adoptee, donor conception or non-paternal event (NPE), the nature of discovering a secret of this magnitude triggers extreme reactions from family who have gone to great lengths to guard the secret, fearing reprisals for its revelation. The method of choice families use to keep the status quo has often been shame, a powerful tool designed to keep control and maintain standing in the community. To understand why families, engage this tool, I think it is important to understand the evolutionary and cultural function shame fulfills.

In evolutionary theories, shame serves the important function of keeping us within the group via acceptance. If we do not show remorse over mistakes, we can be driven out of the tribe, as that is viewed as a threat to the survival of the group. Shame can also be described as moral , a basic cross-cultural emotion designed to maintain social norms and promote social hierarchies.

Gregg Henriques , Ph.D. professor of Psychology at James Madison University says “shame emerges when people feel they have failed, when people are rejected or perceive they are somehow lesser…” In the lives of DNA discoverers, this theory can be seen at work when they search for answers from family, usually mothers, and are met first with deflections and lies followed by incredulous, demeaning attacks if the first line of defense has not deterred them.

Piqmi Felipe/Unsplash
Source: Piqmi Felipe/Unsplash

We cannot have a conversation about shame without Brené Brown , the leading researcher on shame and its bedfellows vulnerability and empathy. Integral to Brené’s work is the belief shame is resolved by “walking through” it, not avoiding it. When we avoid shame it becomes negatively reinforced, meaning our efforts at avoiding shame are strong enough to reinforce the avoidance, making it more l likely we will avoid it again and again. The antidote to shame is seen as empathy and willingness to be vulnerable. Shame prevents us from reaching for our needs, particularly if we risk alienation from family, our tribe. In early human existence, that equated to a threat to one’s survival.

I believe modern family responses to DNA discoveries are based in the same evolutionary perception of threat to survival, triggering shame as a way to comply with group norms. Throughout human history, women have been given a narrow range of value, usually pertaining to reproduction and childrearing. Acknowledgement of female sexuality was not on par with men’s until the late 20th century, so when women acted upon normal physical and sexual desires, an imbalance occurred between men and women’s responsibilities as women were unable to hide the outcome: pregnancy. In addition, they were shamed into hiding the nature of the conception, their desires, or needs out of fear they would be unwanted by men, be labeled social outcasts bringing shame on their families for so egregiously straying outside the norms. That is internalized as a threat to their own survival.

In my clinical work with NPE, donor conceived and adoptees, I see the effects of the initial shame, the one cast upon the mothers, acted out again but this time onto the offspring that came from their acts, becoming an inheritance. In many cases, when a discoverer’s mother is confronted, the motherly instinct evaporates, giving way to a primal survival instinct that will attack their own adult children in order to protect the secret that threatens their perceived survival. If the very nature of how one is brought into the world is so shameful, the DNA discoverer often feels they should be ashamed they even exist. They are told to keep their mother’s secret, as though they agreed to an unknown covenant at birth in order to protect the family reputation, and their mother’s social standing both in and out of the family. By keeping that secret, they protect themselves from the shame of their own existence. The secret is used as a type of currency; if you maintain the status quo, pretending this hasn’t happened, you can stay within the family. All will be forgiven, as long as you never mention this again; another repetition from mom’s experience.

I see this as a modern social expression of the basic evolutionary needs for group survival. Deviation from the group norms require the offender to show regret in order to return the tribe to the status quo, reducing the threat to group survival. A DNA discoverer’s mother and family engage in the same behaviors, creating significant psychological stress and trauma for the DNA discoverer, caught between the pull to learn where they come from (assimilate a more cohesive identity) and the need to align with their family (acceptance by the tribe).

The discovery of secret parentage changes everything for the discoverer and almost as much for the families involved. It effects everyone like ripples in a pond and all feelings and needs are valid. However, the shame put on the discoverers is an unacceptable representation of reasonable concern for survival, so instead of manipulating or shaming the discoverer, saner conversation could prevail to make room for everyone.

Certain rights are unavoidable, such as the basic right to know where one comes from and the personal decision thereafter of what to do with that information. The secret is kept for valid reasons and once the child is old enough to make sense of the meaning of the discovery, the ownership of that story transfers to them, as a being of free will. This discovery does not negate the possibility of acceptance between mother and child. On the contrary, it provides an opportunity to grow beyond ancient constraints that never served the original secret keeper very well, and allows the potential for an even closer bond between parent and child. It’s a leap of faith for the mothers, but who better to understand the need for acceptance and inclusion than a DNA discoverer?