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Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise
The impact of growing up in a shaming environment affects an individual's life. Debilitating shame affects our ability to form loving relationships, honor ourselves adequately and may impact our future generations. Yet it has only been in the last ten years that the dynamics of shame have received attention in the field of psychology. Helen Block Lewis (1987) in her book,
Books on shame are now being published. This is an important step in bringing it out of hiding. It is my feeling that debilitating shame and guilt are at the root of all dysfunctions in families. Our understanding of these masters of disguise will enhance our understanding of all adult children of dysfunctional families and/or communities. It will help explain why many adult children of depressed parents, abuse, religious fanaticism, war, cultural oppression and parental and sibling death (to name a few) identify so readily with the characteristics of adult children of alcoholics. All these adult children have one thing in common... they grew up in shaming environments where the grief of the past was not resolved in the past and their parents in delayed grief could not healthily bond to children.
Some of the difficulties that we have faced in understanding the concepts of debilitating shame and guilt are that the concepts have been confused historically in the literature and that the theoretical information has been difficult to understand.
When I was asked to write a clear easy-to-understand book on shame and guilt, I was excited by the challenge. I found that using fairy tales to portray shaming environments allowed readers to reach the shamed child in themselves and added clarity to sometimes difficult concepts. Throughout my research I found that there were definable characteristics of shaming environments recounted by adult children who experienced debilitating shame in childhood In this book characteristics of shame-based behavior in relationships are explored and defined I have listed these characteristics in several sections and have given examples that I believe will aid in the understanding of each characteristic on an emotional as well as cognitive level.
As an introduction to the chapters that follow, I list and describe common characteristics of adults shamed as children and shame-based adults in relationships.
Characteristics Of Adults Shamed In Childhood
- Adults shamed as children are afraid of vulnerability and fear exposure of self.
- Adults shamed as children may suffer extreme shyness, embarrassment and feelings of being inferior to others. They don't believe they make mistakes. Instead they believe they are mistakes.
- Adults shamed as children fear intimacy and tend to avoid real commitment in relationships. These adults frequently express the feeling that one foot is out of the door, prepared to run.
- Adults shamed as children may appear either grandiose and self-centered or seem selfless.
- Adults shamed as children feel that, "No matter what I do, it won't make a difference; I am and always will be worthless and unlovable."
- Adults shamed as children frequently feel defensive when even minor negative feedback is given. They suffer feelings of severe humiliation if forced to look at mistakes or imperfections.
- Adults shamed as children frequently blame others before they can be blamed.
- Adults shamed as children may suffer from debilitating guilt. These individuals apologize constantly. They assume responsibility for the behavior of those around them.
- Adults shamed as children feel like outsiders. They feel a pervasive sense of loneliness throughout their lives, even when surrounded with those who love and care.
- Adults shamed as children project their beliefs about themselves onto others. They engage in mind-reading that is not in their favor, consistently feeling judged by others.
- Adults shamed as children often feel angry and judgmental towards the qualities in others that they feel ashamed of in themselves. This can lead to shaming others.
- Adults shamed as children often feel ugly, flawed and imperfect. These feelings regarding self may lead to focus on clothing and makeup in an attempt to hide flaws in personal appearance and self.
- Adults shamed as children often feel controlled from the outside as well as from within. Normal spontaneous expression is blocked.
- Adults shamed as children feel they must do things perfectly or not at all. This internalized belief frequently leads to performance anxiety and procrastination.
- Adults shamed as children experience depression.
- Adults shamed as children lie to themselves and others.
- Adults shamed as children block their feelings of shame through compulsive behaviors like workaholism, eating disorders, shopping, substance abuse, list-making or gambling.
- Adults shamed as children often have caseloads rather than friendships.
- Adults shamed as children often involve themselves in compulsive processing of past interactions and events and intellectualization as a defense against pain.
- Adults shamed as children are stuck in dependency or counter-dependency.
- Adults shamed as children have little sense of emotional boundaries. They feel constantly violated by others. They frequently build false boundaries through walls, rage, pleasing or isolation.
Characteristics Of Shame-Based Adults In Relationships:
- We lose ourselves in love.
- When we argue, we fight for our lives.
- We expend a great deal of energy in mind-reading. We frequently talk to ourselves about what our partners are feeling and needing more than to our partners.
- We pay a high price for those few good times.
- We often sign two contracts upon commitment, one conscious and another which is unconscious.
- We blame and are blamed.
- We want them gone, then fight to get them back.
- We know it will be different but expect it to be the same.
- We often feel that our partners are controlling our behavior.
- We are frequently attracted to the emotional qualities in another that we have disowned in ourselves.
- We often create triangles in relationships.
- We seek the unconditional love from our partners that we didn't receive adequately in a shaming childhood.
Throughout the remainder of this book, these characteristics will be fully explored.
© 1990 Jane Middelton-Moz. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Shame and Guilt by Jane Middelton-Moz, Ph.D. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.