What It’s About
Shame is thoughts and feelings about who you are.
It involves feeling unworthy of respect or positive consideration by others, feeling like you deserve to be judged and criticized, and feeling embarrassed in front of others.
Shame is almost always a problem for people who’ve had harmful unwanted or abusive childhood experiences. As children and as adults, they at least partly feel that there is something about them, something wrong with them that makes them ‘less than’ others, that caused them to be mistreated by others.
If you are struggling with shame, you are not alone.
Like guilt, shame is hard to bear. It can make it difficult to overcome the negative effects of harmful childhood experiences.
And like guilt, shame isn’t all bad. There are times we should feel ashamed and try to win back the respect and trust of others. Without a sense of shame, we’d be in trouble.
But shame can be a huge problem, of course. It can go too far, go on too long, and prevent us from relating to others in healthy ways.
Yet many people have found they can overcome shame and leave it behind, using the tools of self-awareness, understanding, and compassion.
And this won’t be news to anyone: For people with histories of harmful unwanted or abusive childhood experiences, intense and long-term shame can seem to be an unshakable part of life.
You already know a major reason why…
Being Someone Who’s Had Unwanted or Abusive Sexual Experiences
For the vast majority of children, it feels shameful to have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences. The sense of shame can last long into adulthood, and sadly some people take it with them to the grave.
Boys and men have both similar and different reasons than girls and women do for feeling shame after such experiences. No matter who you are, to be manipulated, used, exploited and harmed in that way can lead to feeling like there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. People often fear that there something about them that brought on the experiences and the people who subjected them to such experiences often tell them that.
Or a person may feel that, because they’ve had such experiences, something about their very being (as a person, not just a sexual person) has been permanently tainted in a way that decreases their value and how anyone who knows or might learn about it does or would see them.
Boys and Men
For boys and men, having had unwanted or abusive experiences that totally conflicts with how males are supposed to be:
- Males are not supposed to be dominated, let alone victims, especially sexually.
- Males are not supposed to have sexual contact with other males (if this was the case for you).
- Males are not supposed to experience vulnerable emotions, especially fear and sadness.
- And males especially aren’t supposed to feel ashamed. (This one can create a vicious cycle of ‘shame over feeling ashamed’ that can seem impossible to escape.)
For many males, the shameful sense of not being a ‘real man’ because of what happened is a huge burden in their lives. It affects what and how they think and feel about themselves. It leaves them fearing how others would see them if they knew what happened. (Sometimes they can’t shake the belief that others must know – even when they couldn’t – and see them as ‘not a real man.’)
The opposite of how boys and men are supposed to be.
This shame is felt to some extent by just about every man who had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood. Yet it can be overcome, and many, many men have managed to do so.
Girls and Women
For girls and women, in contrast, being sexually used or abused is not the opposite of how they’re supposed to be. Instead, it’s a more extreme version of how they’ve been taught and conditioned to behave. It’s a more extreme version of how they’re viewed by others, and may come to see themselves, in a world that’s dominated by men.
On television shows, in movies and advertising of all kinds – let alone the pornography that is becoming increasingly mainstream in our society and around the world – not only women but girls, even young girls, are presented as objects that exist for the sexual pleasure of men. Girls and women get this message in many other ways too, including leering looks, unwanted sexual comments and other forms of sexual harassment.
Girls and women know they’re vulnerable to being categorized as a ‘good’ girl or a ‘slut.’ There are other stereotypes, of course, including ‘tease’ and ‘bitch,’ and those put on homosexual girls and women.
Again, all these stereotypes have something in common: a girl or woman is defined by her sexuality, more specifically by how boys and men experience her sexuality – as something good or bad, as something that renders her worthy of respect and care or, instead, warranting exploitation and abuse. In these twisted views, some girls and women ‘deserve’ to be ‘taught a lesson’ for sexually frustrating men, for acting like they’re better than men, or for otherwise allegedly being unworthy of respect (because they’re a ‘slut’ or ‘whore’).
Extreme versions of how girls and women are already viewed and treated.
Tragically, then, for a girl or woman to be molested, raped or otherwise sexually assaulted is to experience a more extreme version of something they’re constantly told they’re ‘supposed’ to be: passive objects for men’s sexual use and domination, sexual objects whose feelings and needs are ignored and irrelevant. In addition, being sexually assaulted has forcibly put them into a category of ‘damaged goods’ or ‘spoiled womanhood,’ at least with regard to their value as ‘respectable’ sexual objects for boys and men.
As many women have pointed out, all of these degrading and controlling stereotypes of women add an additional layer of shame to that already built into sexual exploitation, abuse and assault. Again, it’s different from the additional layer of shame that men experience, but a powerfully destructive force all the same.
There may be deeper, and unrecognized, sources of shame.
Importantly, I don’t want to compare the suffering or shame of male and female victims of sexual abuse or assault in a way that pits them against each other. But it can be helpful to understand some of the different factors that contribute to their different experiences of shame. And every person, whether male or female (or some other gender identity), is a always a unique individual with his or her own unique experiences of shame.
Extreme Shame and Its Sources
As if I haven’t already covered enough reasons that harmful unwanted or abusive childhood experiences can cause shame, some men and women experience very extreme shame – shame so intense that it can be crippling, and so intense that it is continually driving many thoughts and behaviors, including constantly trying to ‘prove themselves.’
There are still other, deeper and older, sources of such extreme shame. Even when the shame seems to be all about particular harmful childhood experiences, it may be as much or more a deep-seated shame learned in their youngest years and earliest relationships.
What do I mean? It will take some explaining, but I encourage you to read on and think about whether what follows might apply to you.
Sometime during the second year of life, children become capable of imagining how others think of them. They become ‘self-conscious.’ They also start feeling shame.
When someone a child cares about and depends upon for care expresses disappointment in them, rather than acceptance and enjoyment of their presence, they experience shame. Suddenly, there is a disconnection in the relationship, and the child feels (at a minimum) less secure and less supported.
When the important person expressing disappointment is a parent or other important caregiver, the child wants to end the situation of disapproval and avoid having it happen again. In healthy relationships, this is just what the child tries to do, over and over again. In this way, he or she learns to maintain the overall approval and love of parents and other caregivers, despite his or her unavoidable mistakes and ‘bad behavior.’
Yet when parents and caregivers don’t merely disapprove of specific things a child does, and don’t just temporarily treat her or him as less worthy of respect and love, but instead repeatedly express a lack of love and appreciation, and even contempt and hatred toward her or him, then shame becomes a constant. It becomes overwhelming. And it leads to extreme attempts to escape it.
What does this extreme shaming look like?
- Like a little boy who, whenever he approaches his father or mother full of pride, about to tell of something he’s done, is met with a cold ‘leave me alone,’ a hand waving him away, a blank look, or no response at all.
- Like a little girl who, whenever she’s made a mistake or done something wrong, hears from her parents things like ‘you’re so stupid,’ ‘you’ll never amount to anything,’ ‘you’re such a terrible, ungrateful child,’ or those ultimates, ‘I wish you were never born’ or ‘I wish you were dead.’
When such experiences are repeated over and over again, any girl or boy will be torn between the need for connection and love and the fear of shaming rejection, criticism and ridicule. Any boy or girl will come to see himself or herself as a bad and unlovable person.
For a child treated this way at home, shame is not about how to manage relationships with people whose approval he needs. Instead, shame is about how he or she is a bad and unlovable person who deserves rejection and contempt, even hatred.
At some point, even the most basic needs for love and attention – so often met with rejection, criticism and ridicule – themselves become sources of intense shame. Once this happens, until and unless truly loving and healing close relationships are found, shame will be a constant companion. It will color all of the child’s or adult’s relationships and all of his or her attempts to find a way in the world.
The two faces of shaming are rejection and contempt. Repeated shaming rejections in childhood can create a person who fears and avoids close relationships. Repeated shaming contempt can saddle a person with lots of anger and hostility for years.
Repeated rejection and contempt, whether alone or combined, tend to create children and adults who fear and avoid asserting their needs in healthy ways. And so, adults who were severely shamed as children have a big internal obstacle to seeking help – or even feeling worthy of being helped, including helped to get over their shame.
Shame Can Be Overcome
It is possible to overcome shame, even the most extreme shame. I can’t emphasize that enough.
- It is possible to reach out for genuine connection from people capable of providing it.
- It is possible to find the help you need to overcome the shame you feel about harmful childhood experiences, even to overcome a deep layer of shame created by shaming early relationships.
Many other men and women have done it. Many other men and women have found themselves amazed, and rightly proud, of how they’ve overcome their shame and turned their lives around.