Are You Creating a Shame-Based Family Environment? 16-20

Teri, Tamara and Natalie did a great job at explaining the issue of shame:  a feeling of toxic guilt, or where you feel bad-- even though you haven't done anything wrong.  Guilt is where you feel bad for what you did, or how your behavior or choices effected someone else.  Shame is where you feel like a bad person.  I hear many people describe their shame issues as feeling as though nothing they do is ever good enough, or feeling like there is something wrong with them as a person. Shame is such a core issue for so many people we see in counseling, and it can impact our lives in all areas:  work, family relationships, romantic relationships, friendships, parenting, and our relationship with ourselves!  Unfortunately, toxic shame can also be handed down from generation to generation.  If a parent has unresolved toxic shame, they will parent their children in a shame-based manner as well.  Here are the final 5 characteristics of shame-based families:

  • Shame-based family environments have a "Me" concept, instead of seeing the family as an "Us".  When a family system operates in this way, decisions are made based on one persons needs and desires, instead of seeing what is best for the family as a whole.  This denies the needs and desires of the rest of the family members-- which means that someone's needs will constantly go unnoticed and unmet.  As a result, this can create feelings of unworthiness in the family members whose needs weren't validated.  As an adult, this person may not feel worthy of vocalizing their needs because they either don't believe they deserve to, or they are afraid their needs will just go unnoticed or unheard.
  • Shame-based families have very limited and constricted feelings.  There may be unspoken (or spoken) "rules" about what feelings are "appropriate" or not.  For example, a family who doesn't allow the expression of anger or sadness, but expects for all family members to smile, show happiness, or act like nothing is wrong.  This causes a person to assign a negative label to certain feelings, or to see feelings as "bad" or "wrong".  Some families are even more severely restrictive with feelings, where the spoken or unspoken rule is "don't feel".  This can result in a person "cutting off" to, or being unaware of feelings altogether!
  • On the same note, shame-based families have painful or unresolved issues (e.g., abusive behaviors, addictions, toxic secrets, etc.).  Because they don't allow expression of the entire range of feelings, the relationships between family members can't be authentic.  We are limited in resolving true conflict or issues in our relationships if we can't be real about how we feel and what is effecting us!  This causes the family members to become too tolerant of painful things-- things that are inappropriate and toxic. As an adult, you may allow painful or hurtful things to happen to you, not realizing that you have the right to use your feelings to set boundaries with others.
  • Shame-based families are critical of each others needs, and often those needs are denied.  For example, if a child comes to a parent and is needing their time, attention or affirmation, and that child is ridiculed, criticized or dismissed, that child will end up feeling like that need was "bad" and because they have that need, they are a "bad" person.  We see this frequently in our sessions with clients, where they have a need arise, but because they have so much shame (or feel "bad") about having that need, this conflict in their mind will cause them to not have a voice in what they are needing from others.
  • Shame-based families also have little respect for each others limitations.  If someone expresses a limit-- whether physical, emotional, mental, or otherwise, those limits are overlooked.  For example, if you are physically sick as a child, but not allowed to stay home from school without getting in "trouble" or being ridiculed, you don't learn to set good boundaries and limits as an adult and take care of yourself when you don't feel well.  Basically, when limits aren't acknowledged and respected in a shame-based family system, you don't usually learn proper self-care.  Having personal limitations becomes "weak" or "bad", as opposed to healthy and nurturing.

Have you noticed any of the characteristics of a shame-based family?  Perhaps you recognize some from your family growing up, or recognize ways that you might be shame-based in your own parenting.  If so, we encourage you to begin addressing shame, and making healthy changes, both for yourself and for generations to come!

Stay tuned for next weeks blog topic:  common obstacles to growth in therapy.  As always, thank you for joining us!

Joleen Watson, MS, NCC, is a therapist at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. She enjoys doing marriage counseling, relationship counseling, couples counseling, and individual counseling.  Imagine Hope also specializes in family, child and adolescent counseling and serves Indianapolis area including the surrounding areas of Carmel, Noblesville, Zionsville, Westfield, and Fishers.