Lately I’m feeling inspired by Janina Fisher’s work on shame. Pervasive feelings of shame are often the result of childhood abuse, neglect, or trauma. Through the process of expanding my knowledge and working with clients, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of the relationship between shame, the inner critic, and self-loathing.
Shame begins as an interpersonal experience between the child and caregivers in his or her life. When parents are limited in their ability to provide “good enough” parenting they often resort to punishments to keep the child in line, or discharge their own anger. Punishment can involve acts of commission, such as overt abuse, or acts of omission, withholding love and care. Both experiences are felt as a threat to survival by the smaller and more helpless child who depends on his parents for all his needs.
When humans are faced with a threat to survival, we typically attempt our first line of defense: fight or flight. Yet those strategies are often ineffective in cases of childhood abuse. The child often cannot escape her parents whom she also depends on for her very survival. And fighting a bigger and scarier parent is not only ineffective but can result in more severe punishment. At that point, the body and brain turns to it’s last available defense strategy: freeze. By becoming still and not resisting the abuse, the child protects himself from the consequences of fight or flight.
Yet the experience of submission also results in the experience of shame. Not only does the child’s body submit in a slumped and defensive posture, she also begins to develop the feeling of shame and the thoughts that accompany it. To make sense of her experience she might think, “This is happening to me because I’m bad. If I weren’t so bad my parents would not be punishing me like this.” In the moment, this is an ingenious and effective survival strategy; it helps the child make sense out of an otherwise incomprehensible experience. As a result, the child becomes compliant and takes the blame for parental abuse on himself: it’s all his fault.
As the child grows, the experience of shame becomes firmly internalized as a part of the self. This is particularly true if the abuse is frequent and ongoing. Throughout childhood and adulthood, shame lives inside and gets triggered by mistakes, others’ criticism, attempts to be assertive, and many other events. Shame is both a bodily reaction of slumping and submission and also a cognitive experience of self-criticism. Thoughts that perpetuate shame are often labeled the inner critic. The inner critic is particularly adept at thoughts such as, “You’re stupid. You’ll never amount to anything. No one loves or cares about you. You’re worthless.” This part can often sound like the internalized voice of one’s parents. When parents are harsh and critical, the inner critic becomes particularly relentless and its frequent and persistent judgments against the self maintain the feeling of shame.
Self-loathing, then, becomes an overarching belief about the self as worthless and unlovable. The continued and reinforced experiences of shame and self-criticism lead to self-hate; the belief that one is a fundamentally bad and flawed person. Self-loathing is the experience of not only feeling undeserving of others’ love and care, but also undeserving of self-love. Once the story of worthlessness and self-disgust becomes embedded in the mind and body it can be difficult to shift despite positive life experiences.
Of course we want to remember that this whole belief system developed for a very good reason. It was adaptive in the face of impossible circumstance. Yet, what is adaptive in childhood becomes maladaptive in adulthood and causes a great deal of suffering. Therapy helps with shame, self-criticism, and self-loathing. Research continues to show that psychotherapy changes the brain by creating new connections. There are many ways to help transform your experience with shame. One of the ways we reduce shame is both by honoring its protective value during childhood and expanding other parts of the self: self-compassion, kindness, acceptance, and pride.
Katrina Taylor, LMFT-Associate. 512-270-9002
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