When I was a young child I remember that one of my mother’s methods of making sure my behavior met her exactingly high standards was through the use of shame. In particular, if I was out with her in public and did something to upset her she would shout : ‘If you don’t do as I say immediately I will pull your trousers and pants down right now in public and spank your bare backside until it’s red raw. Red raw!’ (she had a penchant for repeating particular phrases at the end of sentences for dramatic effect), seemingly oblivious to what others in the shop (or wherever we happened to be) thought of her.
She would then grab my hand and drag me on my way (without, to my memory, her ever carrying out her threat, at least not to its fullest extent, which would, presumably, have led to her arrest, even in the 1970s). I say ‘drag’ because it was usually at a volicity with which my little legs, whirring around in a blur like a cartoon character’s, struggled desperately to keep up (I only have memories of my mother holding my hand in this controlling, even punitive way, via exertion of excessive, vice-like pressure ; never tenderly or affectionately). Anyway, suffice to say this left me mute and compliant for the rest of my maternally-imposed excursion, if not the rest of the day.
When, as children, our parents consistently rely, due to their own inadequacies, on shaming us in order to control us or simply to demean us to make them feel powerful, the long-term effects can be severe indeed, especially in the absence of effective therapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy).
THE SHAME LOOP :
Scheff (1990) proposes that in response to a childhood in which we were persistently shamed to a significant degree we can become trapped in a SHAME LOOP in which :
- (Stage one) shame becomes internalized and cannot be discharged which, in turn, leads to :
- (Stage two) feeling shame for feeling ashamed, which results in :
- (Stage three) the feelings of shame intensifying ; this builds up even greater feelings of shames being fed back into the shame loop so that :
- Stage one is reactivated with still greater destructive energy and the cycle, in the absence of effective therapeutic intervention, is reinvigorated.
RELUCTANCE TO SEEK TREATMENT :
And, as you might guess, because individuals feel shame for feeling ashamed, they find it very hard indeed to confide in others about what they perceive as their ‘dark secret’, thus failing to seek professional help and compounding their problems.
CHILDHOOD TRAUMA, SHAME AND SELF-HATRED :
Sadly, intense feelings of shame and self-hatred are very common in adult survivors of chronic and significant childhood trauma which is why I have included a whole category of articles devoted to the topic within this site which you can access immediately by clicking here.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).