Another Way to Silence – Shame

Shame has a long and twisted history.   Over the centuries it has been used to coerce, to convert, to make people compliant, to keep people in line.  I’m not sure there is a “healthy” aspect to feeling shame, though I may be in the minority here as this article states, “Embarrassment and shame are important in the regulation of social behavior. Both emotions tend to occur when rules have been violated.”  But what if those “rules” are not actually in place for the good of ALL?  What if those societal “rules” serve the majority, but actually are a disservice to a minority?

The argument that without shame we would all resort to violent, unethical and amoral behavior is one I don’t agree with.  Plenty of people behave badly who are filled with shame, often as a direct result of the burden of shame they live with, but usually those who feel tremendous shame hurt themselves more often.  I question how often shame, actually motivates us to respond in positive and constructive ways.  In most cases, it seems to me, shame is less a controller of bad behavior and more an instigator of self-betrayal and self harm.

Shame is what people feel who have been on the receiving end of violence, violations, betrayal and abuse.  Numerous studies have linked shame with depression, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress, rape and incest.  The very people who could actually use a little shame appear to be without, while those they victimize carry the vast portion of it.  In these cases, shame is the emotional equivalent to metal restraints, intended to keep people in check, compliant and silent, particularly when used on children or a group of people who are already in the minority.

Many of the methods used, with supposedly great success, on Autistic children, has created a population of adults who feel tremendous shame, lack self-esteem, feel inferior, have anxiety, live with ongoing debilitating stress, all of which exacerbates the very “behaviors” these therapies attempted to remove.   The unending destructive cycle shame creates, does nothing positive for anyone, least of all our children.

I believe shame keeps us from flourishing.  It causes us to doubt, to become hyper aware, self-critical of our desires, our urges, our instincts.  Shame makes us feel incapable, unable, frozen and of little value.  From my perspective, shame is far more damaging than it is “healthy”.  Shame is exactly what I do not want my children feeling.  Ever.  In fact, shame is a warning sign that something has been taught improperly.  If either of my children exhibit shame about something, it is a signal that more needs to be discussed.

I do not want my children behaving in a certain way because they feel shame if they don’t.  I want my children behaving in a kind and loving manner towards themselves and others because they have learned it feels good to do so, because they have come to see that self-seeking, hurting others, gossip, betrayal and acts motivated by resentment and vindictiveness lead to more harm and like-minded behavior. All behavior is infectious.  All behaviors, good or bad can provoke others to do the same.  I am not naïve enough to believe it’s a given, but I do know that I like myself far more when I am kind and being of service than when I’m not.

I hope my children are learning the antithesis of shame and silent compliance, which is a strong sense of self-worth.  I want them to know now, while they are still so young, the beauty and joy of a healthy sense of self, that wonderful feeling of liking who they are as human beings, that feeling we are born with, but that over time can be taken from us.  I want my children to be in touch with those wonderful feelings of curiosity, awe and joy, so that when they make mistakes they aren’t destroyed by them, overwhelmed with shame and become silent.  I want to bolster them up, reassure them, encourage them, support them, so one day, they will be able to give hope and encouragement to someone else who may desperately need it.

Emma – three years old – 2005 


26 responses to “Another Way to Silence – Shame

  1. I’m working through my own shame triggers – which is vitally important for my parenting – because shame is debilitating.

  2. Chou Chou Scantlin

    Look at that adorable cookie face! How cute is that!
    Ah, yes, shame. You have disected it well, and your choices exemplary, Ariane. But does shame always come from what others do to us? I feel I must take complete resposibility for my shame, as it it my vision, my standard of who I want to be, the best I can be, that causes shame when I must face the things I cannot do, especially when it is something so effortless for most people. I believe profoundly that a child should be raised without shame, and taught to accept themselves. Certainly it was of the highest priority to me when raising my son. But…
    I believe in myself. I am uninhibited, and rarely get embarressed, but, when tired, the shame that comes from fearing that which I do not understand, can shut me down for quite a while. If I cannot “read” my environment, cannot follow a conversation, slight people in my desperate need to find a moment out of the crowd, or am just too, too, “Chou Chou”, and do not serve others as well as I desire, and I exhaust myself in the effort, I am overcome with incapacitating shame. No one does this to me. It is very similar to a drunk, waking up the next day, and only remembering vaguely what happened. Friends might say the drunk was the life of the party, but the drunk feels shame, because they fear what they could not remember. Since I cannot take in everything (or rather, take in too much) I cannot remember what I said and did always, when in a social situation. I fear what I did when in this altered state, and shame insues, no matter how loved and accepted I may have been. No one does this to me. Should I just not care? I care deeply. I doubt I am alone in this.
    All you said about outside shame and raising a child is totally on target, and, as usual, you wrote it so well! ❤❤❤

    • I have so much to say in response to this… I wonder if you would still feel shame if we lived in a world where it was okay to make mistakes, where all neurologies were celebrated, where people were kind when we make social blunders, a place where it was okay to be imperfect in our human-ness! I don’t know how innately wired we are to feeling shame or where, for those of us who struggle with perfectionism, that ideal comes from, how much of it is learned over time…
      What I do know is that my friends who feel it deeply, who are wounded and scarred by it, are not at “fault” for feeling it. It is almost always a feeling that keeps us “down” rather than bolsters us up, brings us sadness, rather than joy.
      I know the shame I feel about the way I look in a bathing suit, my ideas of what I “should” look like, my shame that I am not this or that, is all wrapped up in ideals, in myths, in standards I’ve learned, in my own temperament too, for sure, but in the end, like you, I want and try to use my life to lift others up, to encourage, support and cheer and to not use my time here on earth to cause pain and shame. Sending you love Chou Chou!

  3. Shame is not a useful technique. It’s debilitating to children who, like me, are not diagnosed with anything but nevertheless have difficulties with the things that everyone else seems able to do easily. Shame taught me nothing except that I was worthy only of abuse. Trying harder doesn’t work when the brain doesn’t work at all in the expected fashion. I refuse to subject my daughter to that institutionalized shame.

  4. And then there are others who apparently feel no shame, and they can do whatever they like, as if they had superpowers of hypocrisy and wrongness. But I think I have been misusing and misunderstanding this word, when I wonder, have they no mirrors in their houses? I think I mean something more like that faculty which warns one against betraying one’s conscience and integrity, or, if it is not fast enough, which causes “cognitive dissonance.” I believe Socrates was trying to describe it when talking about his daemon telling him no. I am also staggered by how many people behave as if they lack this capacity. But I will stop calling it “shame” because what you have said here is compelling and shame as you describe it is a different and terrible thing.

    • I’m not sure what you’ve described isn’t the same thing, though I do think shame is something used by others to force people to conform. Of course there is the self induced shame of feeling one has not performed as one had hoped, but shame, shame seems tainted with pressure and judgment that I don’t know if it really can organically come purely from within without outside influence….

      • It is different – you explained the difference perfectly. Conscience and integrity are from within, and they withstand peer pressure. So this is why I am mystified when people egg each other to bully, etc. We use the idiom “They should be ashamed of themselves” but it does not mean we want them to have toxically low self esteem. They probably already do. The word is being used ambiguously. We want to say something like “I wish their own integrity and moral belief systems prevented such egregiousness.” But precision is clunky and unusual.

        • “Conscience and integrity are from within, and they withstand peer pressure.”
          “We want to say something like “I wish their own integrity and moral belief systems prevented such egregiousness.” But precision is clunky and unusual.”
          That’s really well said, Ib. I love that!!

  5. Dr Brene Brown has plenty to say about shame and none of it good

  6. I am not familiar with Dr. Brene Brown, but just googled her and oh my! I will definitely be watching her various TED talks! Thank you so much for mentioning her!! I just have to say – I love the commenters on this blog. You guys rock!

  7. You make a good point lots of people feel shame and still do bad stuff.

  8. I love what you’ve written Ariane, but especially:
    “Many of the methods used, with supposedly great success, on Autistic children, has created a population of adults who feel tremendous shame, lack self-esteem, feel inferior, have anxiety, live with ongoing debilitating stress, all of which exacerbates the very “behaviors” these therapies attempted to remove.”

    This is so spot-on. It is the supposed success, and the supposed “extinguishing” of a particular “behavior” that seem to in turn, create more stress and more behaviors. The child is made to feel terrible about themselves. I’ve heard comments to the effect of “…if only, if only they comply, and follow the rules and do_______…well, then they can be proud.”

    I have a stance of refusing to participate in any therapeutic methods I feel are inappropriate for a child, even if the other therapists involved are comfortable participating in those methods. To not do so would be to go against everything I believe in about children and their development. This stance does not seem popular, and I know I have lost prospective clients as a result, but I also have a client base that truly believes in celebrating and supporting their child, no matter their supposed challenges.

    We must celebrate abilities, no matter how few or how many, and stop the shame that surrounds “behaviors” that are deemed inappropriate or “perseverative.”

    Bravo for bringing this important issue to the table. I wish more parents and advocates did.

  9. Shame is such a fascinating emotion; in some instances, it’s excruciatingly painful, and in others, it’s totally necessary. It’s very difficult to understand which is which, especially if people were shamed or abused — in many cases, all shame can feel toxic. However, only specific kinds of shame actually are. Ibby has a very good point about conscience and integrity, which actually are moderated by healthy and authentic shame.

    I make a distinction between authentic shame — which tells you (often gently and lovingly) about when you’re going against your own moral structure, and toxic or foreign shame, which is often a brutalizing force. Since most of us learn about shame by being shamed — by parents, teachers, and peers, it’s very hard to even identify the necessary aspects of healthy shame in a well-functioning psyche.

    Healthy shame is your conscience and it is a large part of healthy empathy. Healthy shame also works in conjunction with healthy self-regard to help people care for and about themselves and others. What’s interesting is that, outside of the research, healthy shame is not openly identified as such, and people have many other words for it. Inside the research however, it’s understood that healthy shame is crucial to conscientiousness and integrity.

    Without healthy, internally generated shame, people can’t actually monitor their own behavior or moderate their impulses. For instance, shame deficiencies are present in most bullies, who also feel unearned amounts of self-regard, and a reduction in empathy.

    In teaching or working with kids, most people overdo shame, and this is where most shame problems get started. What you want to see with children is that place where their own sense of remorse (another word for shame) arises, and they realize that, “Yeah, the cat doesn’t like it when I pull her tail, and I don’t feel good about causing her pain,” or “Yeah,my brother is crying because I stole his truck, and that doesn’t feel right to me.” But most people keep shaming kids even after their own remorse arises, and overwhelm the child’s natural and healthy shame responses. Then toxic shame — or toxic shamelessness — might kick in.

    But this doesn’t mean that shame itself is toxic. It can certainly be made into a very toxic thing, and it can be brutal, but it is a very necessary emotion as long as it’s healthy, appropriate, authentic, and well-moderated. It’s a Goldilocks kind of emotion — you don’t want it to be too hot or too cold. Shame needs to be just right, and when it’s healthy and authentic, it arises from within the individual in often gentle and self-respecting ways.

    I agree with your calling out of so much autistic behavioral training as intrinsically shaming — it doesn’t even seem to wait for a child to sense, “Huh, my normal way of being seems to be surprising to people,” instead, it’s immediately shaming, like BAM! Lightning quick: Here’s how to act if you want to fit in (because not fitting in is wrong), and here’s what you have to do about your normal bodily movements (because the way you move is wrong), and here’s what you have to do with your eyes (because your eye contact is wrong) … it’s a horrendously shaming approach that can lead to toxic levels of foreign shame, and it doesn’t invite children to feel their own appropriate sense of self, or develop their own sense of how their individual ways of being fit into the larger world.

  10. Thanks so much for this thoughtful response. Very interesting. I’m going to read more about shame!

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  12. “The very people who could actually use a little shame appear to be without, while those they victimize carry the vast portion of it.” I have been agonizing over this myself. It seems most of the best people I know are almost crippled by shame, myself included..while I watch these same people being mocked or abused by others with no shame it seems. I want to make the world a better place but I am crippled by shame and I have been going crazy trying to understand why more good people don’t stand up for themselves and those who are helpless while selfish destructive people often take run with seemingly no consequences. Then I found this book at the library, which is answering my question and I think validates and clarifies what you are saying. It is called Healing the Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw. In the first chapter it describes the difference between healthy shame and toxic shame. You asked if any shame is healthy, I don’t think any is in the way we are used to thinking of it. According to Bradshaw healthy shame directs one’s energy because it shows them their limits and allows them to admit their humanity and limitedness. Healthy shame is meant to keep us curious, and searching for growth because we realize we are finite. It says that toxic shame starts with the caregivers, any abuse, neglect, deprivation or humiliation causes toxic shame.
    Are you familiar with the concept of the poisonous pedagogy?
    1. Adults are the masters of the dependent child.

    2. Adults determine in a godlike fashion what is right and wrong.

    3. The child is held responsible for the anger of adults.

    4. Parents must always be shielded.

    5. The child’s life-affirming feelings pose a threat to the autocratic parent.

    6. The child’s will must be “broken” as soon as possible.

    7. All this must happen at a very early age so the child “won’t notice” and will not be able to expose the adults. (Alice Miller)
    “Poisonous pedagogy”, is described by these theorists as what happens when a parent (or teacher, nurse, or other caregiver) believes that a young child’s behavior demonstrates that the child is infected with the “seeds of evil”, and therefore attempts to weed out the evil, either by emotional manipulation or by brute force. In the 18th century common notions of the evil nature of children or of taming bear witness to superstitions and the wish to be able to train human beings like animals.
    One German child-raising book in the 18th century said: “These first years have, among other things, the advantage that one can use force and compulsion. With age children forget everything they encountered in their early childhood. Thus if one can take away children’s will, they will not remember afterward that they had had a will…..”Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child” was a saying that was recorded in Greece, by Juvenal, was also recorded with variations in Sumeria and China prior to the emergence of western European civilisation, and is adapted in the Bible, Proverbs 13:24. Corporal punishment was widespread in all of these civilizations…
    Poisonous pedagogy..aims to inculcate a social superego in the child, to construct a basic defense against drives in the child’s psyche, to toughen the child for later life, and to instrumentalize the body parts and senses in favor of socially defined functions. Although not explicitly, “poisonous pedagogy” serves, these theorists allege, as a rationalization of sadism and a defense against the feelings of the parent himself or of the person involved.[2]”(from Wiki under Poisonous Pedagogy)
    From John Bradshaw:
    “Another aspect of poisonous pedagogy imparts to the child from the beginning false information and beliefs that are not only unproven, but in some cases, demonstrably false. These are beliefs passed on from generation to generation, the so-called “sins of the fathers.” Again, I refer to Alice Miller, who cites examples of such beliefs:

    1. A feeling of duty produces love.

    2. Hatred can be done away with by forbidding it

    3. Parents deserve respect because they are parents. (Note: Any 15-year-old can be a parent without any training. We give telephone operators more training than parents. We need telephone operators, but we need good parents more.) [Emphasis mine.]

    4. Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.

    5. Obedience makes a child strong.

    6. A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.

    7. A low-degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.

    8. Tenderness (doting) is harmful.

    9. Responding to a child’s needs is wrong.

    10. Severity and coldness toward a child give him a good preparation for life.

    11. A pretense of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.

    12. The way you behave is more important than the way you really are.

    13. Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.

    14. The body is something dirty and disgusting.

    15. Strong feelings are harmful.

    f 6. Parents are creatures free of drives and guilt.

    17. Parents are always right.

    “..Prescott concluded that the disrupted child-mother bonding process was an absolute predictor of the emergence of violence, hierarchy, rigid gender roles, a dominatory psychology and violent territorial acquisition..The research showed that over time, disruptive practices become the ‘norm’ and as generations grow and pass on these practices, the society in question begins to demonstrate a clear lack of empathy, and violence is codified. The history of Poisonous Pedagogy is the history of this codification of these non-nurturant practices. It is upon these that current transmitted practice is found.
    Prescott’s work and insights have been confirmed by neuroscience, neurobiochemistry, psychology, peri-natal science, birth psychology and more anthropology.”(from Wiki under Poisonous Pedagogy)
    Shaming children is the true ill of society, and you are definitely onto something. (Forgive me if this is winded..)

  13. Terrific comment, thanks so much for leaving it here. I remember reading Bradshaw and Alice Walker many decades ago and had forgotten that both speak a great deal about shame.
    I haven’t had time to listen to the links left by another commenter of Dr. Brene Brown, but will try to at some point in the near future.

  14. I need help please.ive been denying for years that my daughter may be on the Spectrum but after reading these posts and blogs I think I could be wrong.Help me please.

    • Hi Michelle… if your daughter is Autistic it might be helpful to her to learn of others who are like her. Showing her and introducing her to Autistic women who are writing about their experiences could be invaluable to her self esteem and confidence.

      I cannot comment beyond this suggestion as I know nothing about your situation, but it might also be helpful to get an evaluation if she is interested in having one.

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