Tag Archives: Family

Shame Begets Shame

Shame-based people become the targets of other shame-based people.  The only relief a shame-based person can find in this world (without going through the painful work of therapy) is to shame other people.  Like an addiction this only provides a very temporary relief but temporary relief is better than no relief at all.

My oldest sister was killed in a car accident before I was born.  My parents were probably shame based before this event but I believe this event intensified their sense of shame.  Because they had no healthy way to address this shame they passed it on to my two older sisters who were alive at the time of the accident.  When I came along I was the easiest target for all the other shame-based people in my family.

My oldest living sister was probably the nicest person to me in our family but she was still capable of cruelty.  I remember her holding me down and slowly letting spit drool out of her mouth onto my face.  When I had a girlfriend in high school and was happy and felt good about being a male for the first time she tried to convince me that I should break up with her.  My whole family participated in this.  When I did not break up with my girlfriend both my sisters treated her badly, like she was less of a person and unworthy to be associated with our family.  My oldest treats my wife in a similar way today.  I am not sure how aware of this she is.

My second, oldest, living sister was perhaps the most overtly cruel person in my family when I was young.  She would laugh at me and tell me I was weak.  She would make fun of the fact that I played computer games.  She would take things from me and tease me.  I remember one time she was picking on me and bullying me.  I had a pole in the garage that I would pretend was a martial arts bo stick.  I brought it out and she took it from me.  I remember crying and following her around begging for her to give it back to me but she refused.  Eventually she broke it in half right in front of me and dropped the pieces down a pole in the yard used as a property marker.  She would beat me up and then tell me that she was doing it to toughen me up.  The day when I pushed her back and stopped her from attacking me was a good day in my life.

My Aunt and Uncle (my mother’s brother) also saw me as an easy target.  They would always tell me how “sheltered” my life was as a reason to discount any opinion I might have.  I remember talking to my Uncle after Thanksgiving dinner one year during the 1980’s before the end of the Cold War.  We were talking about nuclear weapons.  I asked why we had to keep making more missiles even though we had enough to kill most of the life on the planet.  He argued that it was not the number of missiles but rather the technology development that was important.  When I persisted he told me that I lived a very sheltered life implying that I was not as qualified as he to offer an opinion on (I suppose) anything. I committed the sin of being born into an affluent, suburban family and even though I thought myself to be very sensitive to never come off as vain or snobbish I got the sense people just assumed I was just that.  Because of this any opinion I had to offer was invalid according to them.

I don’t write this to place blame.  I write this to describe the no-win predicament of a shame-based person.  I am sure if any of my family members read this they would feel betrayed or insulted.  But this is exactly the predicament that I and all shame-based people live in.  My family shamed me but if I protest I become the one at fault.  I am disloyal, weak, selfish, incompetent, lazy, pampered, foolish.  I want to blame other people for my troubles instead of taking personal responsibility.  This is the way shame always outflanks the shame-based person and keeps them imprisoned.  To break free of the prison I have to honestly describe what happened.  I will be shamed for doing it (of course) but facing and experiencing shame is only way of becoming free of shame.

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Intergenerational Aspects of Shame – The Legacy of the Greatest Generation

Shame is passed down from generation to generation.  I was the youngest sibling and if I am being honest I must admit that on some level the members of my family all took sadistic pleasure in making me feel ashamed of myself.  I am sure a lot of this was done without thinking.  In other words they probably did not make the connection that they sought to make me feel ashamed because it was pleasurable to them.  Rather, they saw me as a flawed person and probably thought they were being virtuous in pointing out my flaws.  To them I probably came off as a contemptible, weak creature undeserving of respect.  My mother criticized me so that I would see the error of my ways and reform myself into the person she wanted me to be.   She limited me to protect me from my inevitable failures and reckless behavior.  My father criticized me because I annoyed him and was undisciplined and therefore deserved punishment.  My older sisters bullied me in order to toughen me up.

I think both of my parents grew up in families where they were treated harshly by their parents.  I have no doubt if I presented this theory to either of them they would respond that I am wrong and that their parents were wonderful people who made great sacrifices to provided for them and brought them up to be honest, hard-working and responsible contributors to society (or something along those lines).  I also have no doubt that is true.  My grandparents (the “Greatest Generation“) lived during the Depression and World War II.   They struggled and persevered and probably had to adopt a severe approach to life because survival was at stake.  Enduring these experiences probably also motivated my grandparents to provide a “better life” for my parents’ generation.  I suspect along the way my grand parents’ generation became jealous or ashamed of their children who grew up in a relatively more comfortable life but did not have to make the same sacrifices to earn it.  This translated to a sense that my parents’ generation had to behave themselves and be grateful for what they had and to the extent they did not do this they were severely punished.  Some of this punishment was physical.  But all of the punishment (including the physical) included shame.  My parents’ generation then grew up and internalized a great deal of this shame.  There was a sense that they inherited the benefits of my grand parents’ struggles but did not have to struggle themselves.  My parents in turn raised my generation in an even more comfortable lifestyle which in turn touched their internalized shame.  This shame manifested itself in irritation with my generation, alcoholism and a tendency to lash out in an extremely disproportionate manner when they perceived a lack of due respect, irresponsibility or un-gratefulness on our part.

I grew up constantly feeling like I was not entitled to what I had and that I should somehow feel ashamed of it because I did not earn it.  For most of my life I thought that I felt this way because I was inherently flawed as a person.  I now see this is the result of faulty programing (perhaps even well-intentioned).  The prior generations did not have the resources to see what they were doing and the damage it caused.  For some reason I was blessed with the ability to see this and am now in a position to mitigate its effect on my children.


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