It’s that classic dream, the one where you’re in the mall or at work or in a classroom setting, and you suddenly realize you aren’t wearing any clothes. Either everyone is staring at you, or they haven’t noticed yet that you’re naked in a very public place.
Panic and embarrassment set in. Where are your clothes? How could you have been so stupid? What do you do now? The Shame is paralyzing.
Shame is a universal emotion and everyone experiences it in their life, from time to time. Some experts even believe that infants are born with their brains hard-wired for this emotion. These feelings can be fleeting, like when we wake up from that embarrassing dream. Given enough hindsight, we might even be able to laugh about a shameful situation, even though the memory of it still evokes genuinely sensitive feelings.
In other cases, shame can be at the very root of our everyday lives, causing loads of painful troubles, such as depression, anxiety and addiction to drugs and alcohol. Someone living with this kind of harmful shame feels that they’re not loved because, ultimately, they don’t deserve love from others.
Chronic shame can generally be traced to childhood, resulting from experiences inflicted by parents, relatives or other external forces that continue to haunt an individual into their adult life.
Here are Common Causes for Childhood Shame
While there are many causes and types of childhood shame, here are some of the most common:
- Sexual Abuse: while these statistics are likely higher because the majority of sexual abuse goes unreported, the National Center for Victims of Crime suggest that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of sexual abuse.
- Physical Abuse: data shows that physical abuse, as well as sexual, occurs at every socioeconomic level and across all ethnic and cultural lines. One study reported that 80 percent of 21 year olds who were abused as children met the criteria for at least one psychological disorder.
- Emotional and Psychological Abuse: this can take many forms, such as neglect, verbal assaults, isolation or outright rejection by a parent or loved one. This type of oppression can seriously alter a child’s cognitive abilities and social development.
Because these types of shame are incredibly personal and painful, individuals develop coping mechanisms that all too often are destructive. For many, drugs and alcohol become a form of self-medication. A person with substance abuse issues might not even be aware that what’s fueling their behavior are the scars of abuse and the resulting chronic shame.
It’s one thing to live with the negative effects of shame, but trying to hide from them or dilute the pain with drugs or alcohol only creates an additional problem that’s even more difficult to solve. Substance abuse is a band-aid. Only proper treatment can help ease the pain.
Very often, patients recovering from addiction struggle to stay sober if they have unaddressed psychological problems related to feelings of shame. This is why it’s so important for those trying to reassemble their lives in recovery to get appropriate treatment, where issues of early childhood shame are recognized and addressed with trained counselors, psychologists or psychotherapists.
No one is immune to shame. More importantly, no one should have to live with the debilitating consequences of it. The stigma of early childhood shame keeps many in an unhealthy cycle, perhaps even repeating the abuse that was inflicted upon them. Breaking this cycle and learning to not be embarrassed about one’s own shame is the first step in a healing process that can last a lifetime.