Shame: A Contagious Emotion

In an earlier post, I introduced a meditation on shame. The subsequent post focused on shame as a concealed emotion. In this post I want to focus on shame as a contagious emotion. Like the previous post, this discussion will draw on the work of Mary C. Lamia, my own experience and previous blog posts that I have written. In exploring shame contagion, I will discuss its effects on intimate partners, parents, children and peers.

Shame contagion in intimate relationships

Shame becomes contagious when a person in a relationship takes on a sense of diminished self-worth as a result of the projections of their partner who is attempting to deflect attention from their own “devalued sense of self”. If you value your partner and their opinion and are emotionally dependent on their opinion, you can be strongly influenced by their denigrating remarks and disrespectful behaviour. Your own shame response, reflected in a lower sense of self-worth, can reward their projecting behaviour and create a vicious circle of ever-diminishing self-esteem. The partner’s projection of their shame, whether used consciously or unconsciously, constitutes a form of “emotional abuse“.

Shame contagion in children and parents

A child who experiences distress early in life through the divorce of their parents can take on the shame that rightly belongs to one or both parents. The child can view themselves as the cause of the breakup because they have been “bad”. They can develop an ingrained sense of not being loved or lovable.

Children can also experience shame when their parents engage in what they consider to be shameful behaviour; parents, too, can feel ashamed when their child’s behaviour is criticised by others implying that the parents have failed in their parenting role.

Shame contagion from one person to their peers

Parents can engage, consciously or unconsciously, in shame-inducing behaviour towards their children. An example of this parental behaviour came to light in a workshop group I was facilitating. . The workshop group was continually disrupted by the trenchant criticism by one young woman of everything that was said by anyone else. She was highly analytical and considerably articulate.

In the first break at morning tea, I spoke to her privately and asked what was going on for her when she engaged in this destructive behaviour. She explained that her parents were academics and that even when she was a very young child, she was expected to contribute intelligently to the dinner table conversation. If one or other parent considered that she had said something they considered “stupid”, the parent placed a donkey figure in front of her (implying that she was a “dunce”). In the workshop, the young female participant was projecting her shame from her childhood experiences onto others in the group by making demeaning comments about their lack of intelligence and understanding.

Shame as a contagious emotion

It can be seen from the foregoing discussion that shame can spread across interdependent people or even people who have a low level of interdependence (such as peers). Partners can induce shame in their companions through projection, parents can contribute to feelings of shame when they belittle their children (because they do not measure up to the parent’s expectations), and peers can experience denigration from the shame-deflecting behaviour of another.

So, the contagion of shame can spread across multiple people, generate self-defeating cycles of behaviour and be sustained over several generations. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can become more conscious of our own shame, how it plays out in our lives and how it impacts others with whom we come into contact. The starting point to eliminating shame contagion is the development of self-awareness through progressive self-exploration. This, however, will require being still and engaging in self-inquiry which is often deferred because of the busyness of our daily lives.

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Image source: courtesy of KFrei on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Making a Difference Through Mindfulness

One of the things that we often fail to realise is what impact our own consciousness has on people around us – how we can make a real difference through being mindful.

Paulo Coelho captures this principle in his book, The Alchemist:

That’s what alchemists do. They show that, where we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too. (The Alchemist, p.150)

Recent research reinforces the fact that our moods are contagious – so if we are happy and calm, then we can positively impact those around us. We can make a difference in other people’s lives by living mindfully – by developing our emotional intelligence and building our sense of gratitude and contentment.

Joseph Folkman, who has made a personal study of the contagiousness of mood and engagement, reminds us:

Since doing this research, I have begun thinking about the fact that every interaction I have with other people can be inspiring and building, or discouraging and frustrating. We can build others up or tear them down.

The impact of our mindfulness can spread to our social network just as a person’s grief can impact those connected to them to “three degrees of separation” (friends of friends of friends) – like the concentric ripples that result when a stone drops into a pool of water.  Nicholas Christakis has studied this ripple effect over 15 years and demonstrated the pervasive influence of social networks.  His study can explain the growth of obesity, drug use and depression within a social network over time.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, our mindfulness can impact others in a positive way and make a real difference in their lives.  This was recently reinforced for me with the death of a friend, Pam Kruse.  People from all walks of life and different phases in her life, expressed their appreciation and gratitude for her sense of fun and humour, her zest for life, her thoughtfulness, her energy and readiness to serve others in a generous and unassuming manner.  In a lot of ways, Pam epitomized the “servant-leader“.

So let the warmth of your smile and your sense of contentment shine on those around you, just as the setting sun brightens the darkness of the night sky.

Image Source: Copyright R. Passfield