Book Chapter: Shame in Families

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October 16, 2011 by Dr. Bob Weathers

Shame in Families: Transmission Across Generations

(summarized from: Dr. Edward Teyber, Dr. Faith McClure, and Dr. Robert Weathers in “Shame in the Therapy Hour” (R. L. Dearing & J. P. Tangney, eds.), 2011, Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association Press).

~ Our entire sense of self is derived from interpersonal experiences, particularly those that are laid down in our early psychological development.  Hence if we are prone to shame states, it can be assumed that we have been profoundly affected by repeated shaming encounters with our primary caregivers.

~ For many individuals, psychological symptoms (and the suffering associated with them) persist, even after a course of psychotherapy, owing to the fact that the fundamental sense of self, rooted in traumatic developmental experiences of repeated shame, has never been truly or adequately acknowledged or brought to light of day.

~ If you really “get” the amount of personal suffering your client has experienced (e.g, emotional neglect and abandonment), it only makes perfect sense that your client would be severely limited in his/her ability to control feelings, like shame or anger, and behavior, such as aggressive acting-out of those disturbing feelings.

~ In childhood, our emerging sense of self is very largely a function of how emotionally attuned and responsive our primary caregivers are.

~ Child developmental psychology pioneer Erik Erikson observed that, when the early bonds of trust for the infant are not upheld and encouraged, shame takes hold in the formation of the betrayed infant/child’s beginning sense of self-identity.

~ Far too many children experience and express profound, relentless states of internal shame.  This incredibly painful emotion, which often includes feelings of being personally defective , inferior, or just plain “wrong,” brings with it a sense of hollow emptiness inside, along with feeling always vulnerable, powerless, and exposed to even further criticism of one’s essential worthlessness.  In light of its nearly unbearable intensity, which brings with it the sense of its being utterly unmanageable, such profound shame leaves the defenseless child feeling hopeless about doing anything to “turn down the volume” on his/her overwhelming inner suffering.

~ The thoughts and feelings associated with shame, owing to the pain they evoke, also often trigger defensive reactions (to lessen the pain), such as blaming someone else, attacking another aggressively, or sometimes, hurting oneself (being both the subject and object of shame’s extreme self-hatred).

~ Therapy for the shame-prone client optimally includes what British attachment theorist and child psychoanalyst, Peter Fonagy, calls “mentalization.”  Mentalizing means entering into the inner world of the client, as much as empathically possible.  In this way, the therapist may be able to not only understand, but also help articulate for the client, that painful shame which lies close to the very core of his/her sense of self.)

~ Psychoanalytic theorist and psychotherapist, Robert Stolorow, used and honed a clinical concept very similar to that described by Peter Fonagy.  Stolorow’s focus is on the  “intersubjective,” or mutual, therapeutic relationship; one in which “sustained empathic inquiry” is facilitated at all times, and whose one goal is to provide the client with an experience of being known and understood radically and completely.

~ Without a concerted and skillful therapeutic intervention, shame may very well be handed down from one family generation to the next.  The biblical admonition of the “sins of the fathers” being “visited” upon their offspring comes to mind.

~ Perhaps the single most identifying source of suffering for shame-prone individuals is their absolute and underlying (sometimes subliminal, though no less crippling) sense of being a failure.   These same individuals are at risk of attempting such personal antidotes to shame as projecting their own worst fears, and with them, relentless expectations, onto their children; all this in the unsuccessful attempt to resolve the parent’s own core sense of shame.  This strategy of “indirect self-acceptance” (discussed by authors Putney and Putney in their classic, “The Adjusted American”) aims at making sure that the shamed parent’s child performs at so high a behavioral standard that the parent, by association, might be viewed as a truly “good” parent, and by implication, as a “good” (rather than defective) person.

~ Shame, because it cuts right to the core of one’s most intimately known sense of self, requires that the therapist be able to connect to the client at the deepest interpersonal level.  The aim here is that the client requires has experienced the therapist’s carefully attuned presence and validation of their true self (deeper, more fundamental than the shamed version) will be able to internalize the therapist’s emotionally balancing or regulating presence.  This experience of emotional repair, which psychoanalytic self psychologists call “transmuting internalization,” provides clients over time with the ability to increasingly tolerate emotional stressors, experience a broader range of emotions (especially pleasant or positive ones), and be much more flexible both cognitively and behaviorally.

~ As clients work, with therapeutic help, through their vulnerabilities around shame, they most often experience a renewal of personal ambition and vitality—what self psychologist Heinz Kohut called one’s “nuclear program” (self as “nucleus”) or what psychoanalyst James Masterson called, simply autonomy (after the Greek sense of “autos-nommos” (or literally, self-law).  These positive changes may be seen to manifest behaviorally in increased goal directness, experienced self-congruence (between one’s ideal self and actual self), and personal integrity (in the root sense of that word, literally, to be a single, indivisible “integer”).

~ Psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg, in particular, suggests a therapeutic approach which processes emotional experiences, with a “receptive other” in the present, here-and-now moment—especially in clinically treating shame states—where the greatest stress is place upon consistently providing emotional safety in the therapy hour.

~ It is essential to any effective intervention with shame that this emotion’s validity—that the client somehow deserves to believe in his/her defectiveness—be seriously challenged.  The goal here is that shamed clients may then develop a non-shaming internal sense of self-identity; one which  endorses their legitimately being worthy of being loved and  cared about, and affirmed, right amidst their human imperfections.

~ Recent research in psychological development, suggests that criticism, especially when chronic, may be a far more central cause of shame than previously recognized.

(More to follow.)



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