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  • Shame Part 1: How we learned to feel shame and why

    Shame is different than guilt.  Guilt is a normal reaction to something we have done that is not okay, something that is wrong according to our own values. Shame is a deep feeling of not being worthy, not being normal, not being a good person. 

    Guilt is about what we DO. 

    Shame is about who we ARE.

    We aren’t born feeling shame or guilt, we learn those emotional experiences early in our childhood development before we are even three. As infants, our social development begins even before motor control.  We smile and cry in response to our caregivers before we even reach and grasp things.

    Parents, or whoever our main caregivers are when we are little, teach us who we are and how to best behave in the world.  If our caregiver is predictable, consistent, and reliable we learn to trust that our needs will be met. We learn HOPE. If, instead, we don’t have a consistent or reliable caregiver we begin to dread what might happen or not happen when we express need. Our earliest attachment style (more on that in a later blog) develops from the experience of trust, mistrust, hope, and dread.

    As we grow and begin to toddle around, we begin to learn about our own capabilities, our own ways of being. We learn that we can influence the rest of the world, that we have some degree of free will and personal control. We experiment with saying “no” and “maybe,” and maybe “yes”.

    Now no parent is perfect—all parents are inconsistent to a degree, thank goodness. A little inconsistency teaches a child that everyone, even their most vital people aren’t perfect.  Some inconsistency teaches us that it’s not necessary or possible to be perfect, teaches us a little flexibility.  

    However, any measure of shame is too much hurt for anyone.

    Bad boy.  Bad girl.

    When we are overly criticized, chastised, controlled, and not given the opportunity to assert ourselves, we begin to feel inadequate. When we are called ugly names by the very people we depend on the most, we begin to doubt our own selves, even our ability to survive.  We begin to feel ashamed.

    Teaching a child when their behavior is desirable or undesirable, good or bad, helps them develop a healthy sense of guilt.  Healthy guilt for negative behavior is a crucial component of healthy social networks.  

    There is no such thing as “healthy shame.”

    Calling a child names or shaming them erodes their sense of self, and destroys their ability to trust themselves within social networks.  A child grows into an adult who never feels whole, never feels safely adequate around others. And shame can be learned at any age in an environment of emotional abuse—from a peer on the playground, or a parent, or a boss, to an abusive intimate partner. 

    There is no healthy use for shame.  Shame is used by those in power to control those who do not have power.  Shame is only rotten, and it is only used for rotten reasons.  

    Shame is a cage within which the human spirit withers.

    Copyright © 2023 by Marilee Snyder


    The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, “Guilt vs. Shame” infographic, 2017.

    “Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development,” by Saul McLeod, in Simply Psychology,