Shame is one of the most difficult and complicated feelings that human beings must grapple with in their life’s journey. It strikes at the heart of our vulnerability and sense of self. Shame can follow actions ranging from making a simple mistake to committing the most serious violations of society’s laws and mores.
Neuroscientists have placed our earliest experience with shame at about 14 months of age. This is when a child becomes mobile enough to “get in trouble”. For the first time in her or his life, the experience of disapproval from the primary caregiver follows behavior that is not allowed–even if that disapproval is only to reinforce safety. It is the beginning of the child having the experience, “I am bad”. The response of the caregiver to this new feeling of shame is critically important to determining whether the child will begin to learn to manage this feeling or start down a slippery slope to crippling hatred of self or others.
Because these initial experiences of disapproval can cause the child to feel shunned and isolated–essentially separated from the caregiver–the child will attempt to create a “reunion” to repair this distance that is so anxiety-provoking. Caregivers that facilitate an age-appropriate and growth-producing re-connection with the child after an incident of disapproval will not continue the shaming and instead help the child learn how it feels to recover from a mistake. Caregivers who cannot facilitate a healthy reunion will start the process of unmetabolized shame that will need to be relived in adult relationships.
In shame/reunion dramas couples relive the exact cycle that they experienced in their families of origin. How both of them got “back into their parents’ good graces” when they did something considered “bad” as children always has a matching quality that is a prominent feature in their attraction to each other. Their marital dramas include scripts about which behavior is considered bad, exactly how much distance must be created, and precisely what the bad actor must do to create a reunion with the other partner. With couples whose childhood caregivers had a helpful approach to errant behavior, a simple apology might be all that is required to create the reunion. But in those relationships where both partners were required to suffer long periods of shame-filled isolation or retribution in order to experience a reunion during childhood, this painful pattern will have to be relived by them.
Once again, it is critically important in a safe treatment that neither partner is judged for his or her role in these shame/reunion dramas. They must be relived precisely the way they are being observed in treatment in order to get not only the old shame, but usually many other feelings into the present for metabolizing. These dramas are the best mechanism our brains make available to us for healing the errors made by our families in the management of the “bad self”.