Shame is often the catalyst for someone to engage in psychotherapy (whether or not they are aware of this shame or not.) A classic book I often have my clients read - “Healing the Shame that Binds You” by John Bradshaw does a great job explaining what shame is and how it can manifest in a human being. Sure, it’s a book geared towards addiction but most often, underlying addiction is a great deal of shame. Whether or not you suffer from addiction, this book can be really helpful.

Let’s face it, most people did not grow up in a perfect home. Actually, I contend that none were perfect and many had elements of shame. We learn what we are modeled and the first 4 years of our lives the personality is developed. Neurobiology now explains how the brain is formed and adapts to environments in the developmental years and how the brain is forever changed with the modeling, care, and attention children receive early on.

What happens when parents who are shame-based have the responsibility of the development and nurturing of a child in their hands? Our brains do the best they can do cope and protect. Sometimes this protection is on overdrive based on what has been conditioned and leads to problems later on. Our brains are working to protect us but can also be hi-jacked based from past learning and modeling. For example, if you witnessed a parent often becoming enraged with the slightest bit of anger, your response when witnessing angry feelings might be to get the heck out of dodge. This may lead to feelings of anxiety and discomfort when you or anyone around you might show anger.

Most often, parents are doing the best they can with what they have got and probably even needed to do better (a dialectic). However, it is unavoidable for this shame to creep into the person they are assisting with differentiation and development if the parents have a great deal of shame. The key for many people is to understand how generational shame and self-perception leads to the depression or anxiety they may be faced with.

Bradshaw states:

“The job of parents is to model…” “How to relate intimately to another person; how to acknowledge and express emotions; how to fight fairly; how to have physical, emotional, and intellectual boundaries; how to communicate; how to cope and survive life’s unending problems; how to be self-disciplined; and how to love oneself and another. Shame-based parents cannot do any of these. They simply don’t know how.”

Bradshaw continues to write: “Emotions are a form of energy in motion. They signal us of a loss, a threat or a satiation. Sadness is about losing something we cherish. Anger and fear are signal of actual or impending threats to our well-being. Joy signals that we are fulfilled and satisfied. Whenever a child is shamed through some sort of abandonment, feelings, of anger, hurt, and sadness arise. Since shame-based prints are shame bound in all their emotions, they cannot tolerate their children’s emotions. Therefore, they shame their children’s emotions. When their emotions are shamed, children numb out, so they don’t feel their emotions.”

It’s important to understand how your parents reacted to sadness. Did they show you what it was like to feel sad? Did they become enraged, distant, or dismissive to themselves when they were sad? How about anger? Did they become overwhelmed, fearful, or aggressive when anger arose?

Our emotions are indicators of being alive. They sustain us and they matter. When a person can’t feel a full range of emotions they can often feel depression and a sense of “not really knowing who they are.” Sometimes people share with me they feel like they live in a fog, are not really present, and have a strong fight or flight response in the face of an emotion. I find that this is often linked to very early conditioned responses of modeling.

Part of therapy is about observing, describing, participating (tenants of dialectical behavior therapy) in emotions. You may not even be aware you have certain emotions and these need to be re-learned (i.e., I never get angry, it’s not in me or “I’m so frustrated and angry” - when the underlying emotion is sadness and grief that feels very uncomfortable. Our emotions help keep us alive.

Taking steps to fully understand, feel, and experience emotions with another human being is what recovery from depression, addiction, anxiety, etc. is all about. It takes a willingness to go into places that may be uncomfortable or foreign. It takes courage. Take some time to reflect on what emotions make you uncomfortable and how your brain has wired to avoid feeling or experiencing certain things Do you feel guilt when you feel joy? Do you become angry when you start to feel sadness?

Insight is power, understanding and forgiveness towards parents is paramount. While they needed to do better for you, they might have been doing what they learned and the best they knew how. You have the opportunity to change the generational shame by first being aware and learning to experience things again.

One last quote from Bradshaw — “We cannot heal what we cannot feel.”

Jill Lehman-Bauer, MSW