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)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Getting in Touch with Your Wounded Child

Sounds True provides a wide range of mindfulness-related resources that can be viewed online.  These include podcast interviews with experts in mindfulness and online training courses including the audio learning series by Terry Real, Fierce Intimacy: Standing Up to One Another with Love.  The transcript for each free podcast interview is accessible online and the interview itself can be downloaded as an mp3.

Tami Simon, the founder of Sounds True, recently interviewed Terry Real, the author of a number of books including, The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work.  In the podcast interview, Terry introduced one of his concepts which he called “the wounded child” – our automatic response when our sense of hurt is triggered.

As Terry pointed out, we all have a “wounded child” persona which is part of our make-up.   Our wounded child is easily triggered leading to reactive, thoughtless, compulsive, automatic responses that result from an emotional flooding that Terry describes as the “W-H-O-O-S-H, like a wave that overcomes you”.

The trigger that sets off your wounded child might be criticism, real or perceived.  You might have experienced criticism, blaming or accusations as a child from one of your parents.  This negative experience contributes to the development of your wounded child – in this case, identified as a sensitivity to criticism which leads to defensiveness on your part.  Even to this day as an adult, you may continue to experience criticism from a parent in relation to your clothes, your choice of a partner or your location, thus reinforcing your wounded child and related response.

We each have a wounded child that is easily triggered in a close relationship.  For me, “feeling abandoned” is my wounded child – I spent 18 months in an orphanage as a 3-4-year-old and 12 months in a boarding school, 100 kilometres from home, when in Grade 2.   These circumstances were beyond the control of my parents – my mother was seriously ill at the time and my father was overseas in Japan as part of the occupation forces.

Getting in touch with your wounded child

Through your meditation practices .you can become aware of your wounded child and how this persona is manifested in your emotions and behaviour in your close relationships.  You need to be able to reflect on what triggers you and how you respond.

In this regard, the SBNRR (stop, breathe, notice, reflect, respond) process may be helpful in-the-moment or subsequently when you reflect on what happened when you were triggered.

Michael Robotham, in his psychological thriller, The Secrets She Keeps, provides a perfect illustration of a wounded child in action (Meghan) and the response elicited from her husband, Jack (who was also operating from his wounded child persona).  Meghan describes the interaction:

Jack and I [Meghan] had a blazing row about money, which was merely the trigger.  It began when I reversed the car into a lamppost, denting the rear hatch-lid.  It was my fault.  I should have admitted my mistake, but I pushed back when Jack accused me of carelessness.  We fought… Jack has a similar stubborn streak, charging into every argument, wielding accusations like a bayonet.  Wounded I went low, almost begging him to overreact.  He did. (p. 47, emphasis added)

If both parties operate from their wounded child personas, the argument escalates, and the hurt is intensified.  One reaction leads to another, as the conflict deepens.  This is a lose-lose situation and the relationship itself suffers.

As we grow in mindfulness and reflection, we can become aware of our triggers, the nature of our wounded child and the responses we typically make to “what sets us off”.  Beyond self-awareness, is self-management and this requires another set of skills, including “relational mindfulness”, which I will discuss in the next post.

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

Image source: courtesy of jandhnelson on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.