I’m just about ready to deliver a draft of my book on defenses to the other members of my writer’s group; as part of the final revisions, I’ve been attempting to clarify my ideas about shame as they’re so central to the work I do; the text below is adapted from a chapter about defenses against shame and reflects my efforts to sharpen these ideas.
Although I can’t print her name, I’d like express my thanks and acknowledge my debt for all the help I received from one of my long-term clients, a gifted therapist herself and a women who cares as passionately about this subject as I do. She pointed out some holes and inconsistencies in prior posts and helped me clarify what we both believe to be crucial ideas. Thanks, S.
Of all the painful emotions humans must bear, a core sense of shame is the most excruciating, the most difficult to bear. My views on shame and its origins likely differ from how you normally think about it; before describing the most common defenses against shame, let me clarify these views with a brief detour into neurobiology and early infantile development.
Upon birth, we human beings are intensely vulnerable and reliant upon our mothers and fathers to help us grow. The course of our development depends upon how they respond to our physical and emotional needs, and we enter this world with a set of in-built expectations for what those responses ought to be. Winnicott referred to this genetic inheritance as a “blueprint for normality.” When our parents respond appropriately, in keeping with that blueprint, it feels natural, right and good, instilling us with a sense of safety in our world and of our own intrinsic beauty. This experience forms the core of self-esteem.
But in situations where the parents’ responses diverge dramatically from that blueprint – say, when their behavior is emotionally abusive or traumatic – the baby instead senses that something is very wrong and feels unsafe in its world. On a deep intuitive level, it knows that its own development has gone awry. Instead of instilling a sense of intrinsic beauty, an abusive or traumatic environment leaves the infant with a sense of internal defect and ugliness.
I refer to this core sense of intrinsic defect as basic shame. At heart, the experience of basic shame, often unconscious, feels like inner ugliness, the conviction that if others were truly to “see” us, they’d recoil in scorn or disgust.
At first glance, it might seem as if I’m using the word shame in a totally idiosyncratic way, but this usage actually reflects one of the secondary meanings of the word: disappointed expectations.
It’s a shame the rain spoiled our picnic.
When anticipating the day ahead, we have an idea in mind, a vision of the pleasure we will take in the planned picnic; when the reality fails to match that expectation, shame is the result. In the case of the developing infant, basic shame arises when the in-built expectation for a nurturing environment meets the reality of parents whose behavior is abusive or traumatic.
Recent studies by Allan Schore and other experts in neurobiology have traced the effects of parental responses to their infant on the development of its brain, especially those parts involved in feelings and social functioning. In comparing brain scans of two-year-olds who grew up in emotionally deficient environments – that is, with parents who consistently failed to respond according to the infant’s in-built expectations – with those who grew up in optimal environments, the former displayed far fewer neurons, with fewer interconnections between them.
In other words, when the environment diverges widely from the blueprint for normality and fails to provide the emotional responses the infant needs, its brain develops abnormally, analogous to the way that a deficiency of Vitamin D (rickets) during childhood may impede normal bone development. After two years, those abnormal brain developments become lasting; you can never fully make up for inadequate parenting during this critical period. Again as with rickets, where failure to rectify that Vitamin D deficiency will lead to permanent skeletal damage, the brains of babies whose parents consistently let them down emotionally will reflect that damage for life.
Basic shame is the (often unconscious) awareness of this internal damage, felt at the deepest level of our being.
In order to develop normally after birth, then, we need parents who will tend to our needs, help us learn to manage our emotions in the context of a loving, joyful relationship and make us feel safe in the world. These are the conditions we need in order to thrive, emotionally and neurologically. When our parents fail, we’re unable to develop as we normally would; growing up, we know on an intuitive, deeply felt level that our development has gone awry, instilling a core sense that something is wrong with us.
We don’t need a perfect environment upon birth, only one that is “good enough,” in Winnicott’s terms. As we move along the spectrum of possibilities away from “good enough” toward more limited, traumatic and abusive environments, those defects increasingly impact and damage our development. The sense of basic shame will also intensify along that spectrum: the more deficient the early experience, the more pervasive will be the sense of damage and thus of basic shame. These feelings will be carried by the person throughout his or her life.
Even if early environment isn’t abusive or highly traumatic, we may develop pockets of shame when our parents let us down in important ways. Maybe boundaries between mother and child are confused, and the parent has difficulty bearing separation. A mother may become so mired in anxiety or depression that it limits her ability to meet her baby’s needs, etc. In these cases – somewhere in between “good enough” and highly deficient – the damage may be less severe and so will our feelings of shame or internal ugliness; our defenses against that experience won’t dominate our character so pervasively.
In my experience, a great many people have these pockets of shame.