We learn our first lessons about what to approach and what to avoid from our parents. As we get older, they also teach us more complicated lessons about how to act in public and in private. These instructions get laid down in both the orbitofrontal cortex, which says, “Yes, it’s okay to feel that and go after that,” and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which says, “No, better not do that right now. Look before you leap. That’s not appropriate.”
We need both parts of our brains to be fully functional. Neither part is right or wrong; each of these areas, and the bodily organs and functions they govern, need to be trained in ways that support our full health and self-expression.
If a girl is to become a woman of character, integrity, and honor— or a mother who is able to raise a daughter with those qualities—then she must, somewhere along the line, internalize a healthy sense of what behavior is honorable and what is improper. Our health throughout our lives is affected by the degree to which we live in accordance with an appropriate value system. In order to learn what is appropriate and what isn’t, the child will have to experience some shame.
The Random House Unabridged Dictionary lists a number of definitions for shame. The one that captures the concept of healthy shame is “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.” Or, “Shame is a painful feeling caused by the consciousness or exposure of unworthy or indecent conduct or circumstances.” (The emotion of guilt, by the way, is the result of feeling ashamed about something you believe you should have done or should not have done. Like shame, there is healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt.)
Every child needs to be taught appropriate social behavior so she can express her passion and purpose in a way that is respectful of both herself and others. We do this by providing structure, rules, and proper discipline. Shame works to restrain behaviors that are not appropriate in a social setting, thus allowing a child to fit in and get the health benefits of belonging. Most people, especially when they are children, will do anything to be accepted and loved by their family or group. When they are shamed, they know that their behavior is not acceptable and that they could risk losing approval and love if they continue that behavior. They restrain inappropriate behavior to win the approval and love almost all children so desperately need.
Researchers have found that in order to achieve optimal growth and development as humans, a child needs small doses of shame in the socialization process beginning in early childhood. This accomplishes three tasks: making a child conscious of her behavior and its impact on others; teaching right from wrong (the basis of morality); and instilling the ability to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate behavior.
However, the way in which she is told about her inappropriate behavior is key. A respectful parent who is in touch with her own feelings, her own emotional vocabulary, and who has worked through her own unjustified thoughts and feelings of shame will make a very clear distinction between the unacceptability of a child’s behavior (justified shame) as opposed to the unacceptability of the child herself (unjustified shame). I watched a two-year-old girl crawling over people’s feet in an airport terminal recently. Her mom gently picked her up, took her aside, and told her she had to stop because her behavior was upsetting others. The girl resumed quietly playing with a toy— self-esteem intact, but inappropriate behavior curbed.
The parent who ridicules the child, on the other hand, and leads her to believe that she is bad because her behavior is unacceptable may create a feeling of unjustified shame so painful that the child shuts down emotionally so as not to feel it. I once saw a child stumble at the beach. Her father yelled, “Pick up your feet, you clumsy idiot.” This sort of treatment, if continued, can result in “clipped circuits” between a child’s body and brain. This has lasting consequences for physical and emotional health and also for one’s ability to live a meaningful life imbued with passion and purpose.
Shame is perhaps the most painful emotion that we humans experience. If you’ve ever left the ladies’ room with your skirt tucked into your pantyhose, you know what I’m talking about! Most children—but not all—will do whatever it takes to avoid it. When a child is shamed in a way that damages self-esteem, the results may be paralyzing, both emotionally and physically, depending upon her soul qualities and temperament. Shaming a child in an unbalanced and unhealthy way can damage her sense of joy, independence, self-esteem, and bodily acceptance. The decisions that a child makes about her worthiness become programmed into her very cellular tissue. When a child is made to feel ashamed for normal bodily functions, feelings, or behaviors, then she may begin to believe that she is inherently flawed as a human being. And then, long after the original shaming is over, the beliefs and behaviors that result will continue to play themselves out into adult life, often in ways that are debilitating to a woman’s sense of herself as a worthy, whole, capable human being. There can also be health consequences such as autoimmune diseases.
The unjustified use of shame as a socializing technique is only now being appreciated by our culture for its long-lasting, deleterious effects on our health. Research has shown that the excessive use of shame can also lead to depression, depending upon a child’s temperament. Mahler1
Learn More — Additional Resources
- Mother-Daughter Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup, M.D.See Chapter 7: “The Emotional Brain: Empathy, Will, and Shame” and Chapter 9: ” The Immune System: A Mirror on the Mind and Environment”
- Mahler, M. S. (1979). Notes on the development of basic moods: the depressive affect. In The selected papers of Margaret S. Mahler, M.D.(New York: Jason Aronson), 59–75.