Kids who grow up in families where emotional needs are not validated and met often develop a deep sense of internal shame for having needs at all. Over time, in order to cope, many of these kids become adults with little or no capacity to experience their emotions (a symptom associated with alexithymia).
Hilary Jacobs Hendel’s work explores how chronic shame is often misdiagnosed as depression. Chronic shame, it turns out, may explain some cases of “treatment-resistant” depression. Hendel teaches that, through therapy that includes help discovering the physical cues of emotion that remain in the body, people can rediscover their emotional experience, receive validation of their unmet emotional needs, decrease shame, and heal.
What is Chronic Shame?
Patricia DeYoung, a relational psychotherapist and author of Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach describes Chronic Shame as: “early, repeated, right-brain experiences of affective dysregulation.” Here’s what that means in non-therapist speak:
Chronic shame is rooted in moments, usually in childhood and usually repeated over and over in various forms, of disconnection, rejection, or abandonment from an attachment figure. For us adults, loss of connection with the people we trust to care for us is often deeply upsetting and sometimes traumatic. For children, who have fewer internal tools to care for themselves, the impact is magnified.
“Normal” Shame vs Chronic Shame
Many of us experience shame regularly. One common example happens in relationships. We say or do something that harms or neglects someone in an important relationship and we feel bad about what we did (that’s guilt) and may struggle with feeling like we’re a bad person (that’s shame). Healthy responses to shame turn us towards others to repair relationships, restore trust, and reassure ourselves that we aren’t bad – we just make very human mistakes. This type of shame is a normal part of the human experience. We experience it, heal from it, and can move past it.
Chronic shame, however, sends our brain messages that each mistake, each misstep, each oversight isn’t an opportunity to fix and reconnect, it’s proof that we are “bad.” In sitting with this belief of internal fault, we turn inward and shut down – blocking the connection, repair, and reassurance we need. For many who experienced emotional neglect as children, by the time we are adults, toxic shame and withdrawal is an automatic response to making an error. It is maladaptive (i.e. not-helpful) because this response never allows a chance for personal and relationship growth.
What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?
Childhood emotional neglect can take on many forms. At extremes, childhood emotional neglect may look like a parent consumed by substance addiction or a parent who emotionally abandons a child to the care of nannies. Apart from these extreme examples, however, emotional neglect often occurs in far more subtle contexts.
Often, emotional neglect can seem, on the surface, like a “not big deal.” Children who grow up in homes with a sibling with very high needs (like chronic illness or a severe mental health disorder), children in homes with parents who struggle to validate and soothe emotions, and even very attentively parented kids who have very different personalities than their parents (for example, highly academic parents raising a child who is fascinated by fashion, pop culture, and acting) are just 3 of the many forms that emotional neglect can take on.
Parenting Mistakes vs Emotional Neglect
Neglecting to meet a child’s emotional need occasionally is normal. Even great parents leave some needs unmet – at least temporarily. In fact, one of the early childhood researchers that inform much of what we know about child development found that a parent only needed to notice, respond, and appropriately meet needs about 30% of the time for emotional development to occur uninterrupted (source).
Neglecting to meet a child’s needs chronically – whether intentionally or unintentionally – creates emotional neglect and sets the stage for a lifetime of chronic shame. Kids and adults with chronic shame may feel things like: “I can’t connect with you, and that means something wrong is me.” or “I feel bad, therefore I am bad.”
If our emotions are never seen and validated by another person, kids learn to believe their emotions are bad/we are bad – and that’s bad news, because we NEED emotions to function internally, interpersonally, and even vocationally.
Emotional Neglect and the Developing Brain
Brain circuitry runs on well-worn pathways, and while brains at all ages are capable of change, the thinking and feeling neuropathways created at a young age tend to become our default throughout life. Once our brains are trained to think either “I mess up sometimes, but I’m a valuable person” or “I am bad because something is wrong with me,” changing our thinking can be really difficult.
How Do You Heal from Chronic Shame?
The key to healing from Childhood Emotional Neglect and chronic shame is through working towards breaking the cycle of having shame about feeling shame. Primarily, this is done through emotional validation instead of emotional neglect.
Typically, when we grow up with caregivers neglecting our emotional needs, we learn to neglect our own emotional needs. Change comes when we begin to name our emotional needs, get them care (like through therapy), and start practicing our own ability to honor our emotions and advocate to get our emotional needs met.
Healing from shame can be a long process. It involves learning to be vulnerable to show our emotional needs (to ourselves, our therapist, and eventually with our relationships) and risking vulnerability in hopes of getting the good care that was missing in childhood. A person healing from chronic shame needs to experience more than a cognitive connection with others.
Recovering from chronic shame requires many experiences, over an extended period, of expressing needs and receiving, in response, a sense of being held, being cared for, being loved, and being seen.
Therapy for Chronic Shame
Therapists skilled in treating chronic shame can help. Therapy provides a relationship of mutual trust where this recovery process can be jumpstarted into gear. Not all therapists treat chronic shame or have an orientation that recognizes this particular challenge. Therapists trained in relational psychotherapy, attachment-based therapy, narrative therapy, family systems therapy, integrative therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, and other relational-focused models often have the training to help.
More Helpful Practices for People in Recovery from Chronic Shame:
- Self-awareness exercises: coming to know yourself better through mindfulness practices, meditation, breath + body work, etc.
- Learning to link experience with emotions: doing the groundwork to shift those neuropathways away from shame and towards a healthy sense of self, that was missing in childhood. (“When ___ happened, I felt ____.”)
- Story work: Understanding the stories of where we’ve come from and what generations of our family have been through can help us process, validate our needs, and grow into more satisfying relationships.
- Learning to match words + feelings through in-the-moment mindfulness exercises
- Explore our attachment style to get to know how the stories and relationships of our childhood shape our current relationships.
- Study conflict resolution and build skills to stay engaged in difficult conversations.
Healing from chronic shame involves doing hard work on behalf of ourselves and the young self that didn’t get the care they deserved. With the power of autonomy in adulthood, we can choose to honor our needs, take intentional steps to leave chronic shame behind, and get help to retrain our brains learn to see ourselves – and our emotional needs – as good. It takes time, learning, and practice to learn to validate our feelings, not neglect them, but the reward of richer emotional experience, deeper
self-compassion, increased empathy for others, and more satisfying relationships with others can make the difficult journey worth it.
The content featured in the illustrations of this article are from an interview of Hilary Jacobs Hendel on Mental Health Happy Hour Podcast and illustrated by Lindsay Braman.
Professional Resources for Treating Chronic Shame
My own personal and clinical approach to shame can largely be attributed to what I learned through taking the course The Battle of Shame, taught by Steve Call, PhD at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. Now offered online annually, I highly recommend this course for professional CEU’s and for community audit/non-degree-seeking learners.
Some of the resources I discovered through that course that have informed my own understanding of chronic shame include:
- Bradshaw, J. (1988). Healing the Shame that Binds You. Deerfield Beach, FL. Health Communications.
- Thompson, C. The Soul of Shame.
- Brown, Brenne. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Minneapolis, MN: Hazeldon.
- Brown, Brenne. (2012). Daring Greatly. New York: Gotham Books.
- Call, Steve. (2019). Chapter 3. The Battle of Shame. In reconnect: insights and tools for cultivating connection in your marriage.
- Dearing, R. L., Tangey, J. P. (2011). Shame in the Therapy Hour. Washington, DC. APA.