Shame: Why is it so confusing and powerful?

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"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." - Eleanor Roosevelt

It is important to look at the role shame has played in our lives. Shame is a deeply felt emotion that many victims of abuse believe defines them. It is a belief that "something is wrong with me," that "I am a bad person," and this becomes a self-defining belief that affects one's self-concept.

Compulsive behaviors, sexually addictive behaviors, overeating, chemical abuse and addictive gambling are shame-based behaviors. It is also important not to stay stuck in the role of shame.

It is important to remember that although shame is a learned response, it can also be unlearned. When we start feeling shameful, we tend to operate similarly to someone on drugs or alcohol. Nothing clear can get into your head, and nothing clear can come out of your head.

When we start feeling ashamed, we cannot process information clearly, nor can we communicate clearly.

Shame was used to control us when we were children. The noted psychologist Erik Erickson maintained that personality develops in a predetermined order and develops throughout our life.

He also identified eight stages of development which, when successfully completed, allow for a healthy personality. When one stage is not completed successfully, it can result in a reduced ability to complete further stages and a more unhealthy personality and sense of self.

The second stage, which is autonomy versus shame and doubt, begins between the ages of 1 and 3 when children begin to assert their independence. If children in this stage are encouraged and supported in their increased independence, they become confident and secure in their ability to survive in the world.

If children are criticized or overly controlled and are not given the opportunity to assert themselves, they might begin to feel inadequate, overly dependent on others, lack self esteem and feel a sense of shame or doubt in their own abilities.

How can a parent or caregiver help a child develop positive self-esteem and reduce the negative effects of feeling shameful?

Parents who model positive self-esteem, express interest in their children, are consistently loving and give time and encouragement are more likely to have children who experience less shameful feelings.

Parents who use a democratic style of parenting giving the message of clear and reasonable expectations consistently are more likely to produce a child who likes herself and tries to be her "best self."

The parental message says, "I trust you, but I also recognize that you are not perfect, and I believe in you and value you." It is never too early or too late to initiate such positive messages.

Janet Meyer, MSW, LISW-CP is an associate with Psychological & Counseling Associates of the Lowcountry, LLC in Bluffton.

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