The Origins of Shame

Interesting and disturbing article via Psychology Today:

The YouTube video below was brought to my attention by a long-term client who also happens to be an excellent therapist and works extensively with concepts of shame in her own practice. It’s fascinating, informative and provides a neurological basis for an understanding of the kind of shame that I write about. The primary lecturer, Allan Schore, and the other researchers don’t discuss shame, in particular—they approach this topic from the perspective of attachment theory; but as you’ll see, their explanation of neurological development in the infant helps us understand how an early and deep-seated shame takes root.

You’re no doubt familiar with the nature vs. nurture debate concerning the relative importance of heredity and the environment. Nowadays, the prevailing view seems to be that it’s neither one nor the other but an interaction between the two that defines us. Even so, most people assume that you are born into the world with your complete genetic makeup and that you then interact with your environment. The primary lecturer in this video—Allan Schore, a member of the clinical faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UCLA—challenges this view:

“One of the great fallacies that many scientists have is that everything that is before birth is genetic and that everything that is after birth is learned. This is not the case.” He goes on to explain that there is much more genetic material in the brain at ten months than at birth. Only the brain stem or “primitive brain” is “well advanced” at birth; the rest of the brain continues to unfold and develop for the next two years as neurons become myelinated and interconnect. This development does not occur in an automatic and predetermined way; rather, it is powerfully affected by the environment, in particular by interactions and relationships with the primary caretakers.

It’s a more nuanced view of the nature vs. nurture debate. Not only is it nature and nurture, as most of us already believe; an individual’s particular genetic makeup (nature) also continues to evolve during the first two years of life under the influence of the environment (nurture). In other words, what happens to you, emotionally and psychologically, during those first two years, and especially in the first nine months of life, will powerfully influence your neurobiological development, determining how your brain takes shape in lasting ways. Most important among the brain parts that develop during these early months are those that involve the “emotional and social functioning of the child.” And if those parts of the brain are to develop appropriately, “certain experiences are needed. Those experiences are embedded in the relationship between thecaretaker and the infant.”

At about the 5:45-minute mark in the video, Schore makes the following statement: “there’s something necessary…that the human brain needs in terms of other human contact, for it to grow. It’s a ‘use it or lose it’ situation. Cells that fire together, wire together. Cells that do not, die together.” The idea is related to the notion of critical periods: organisms have a heightened sensitivity to certain environmental stimuli during specific periods of their development. If the organism does not receive appropriate stimuli during this critical period, it may never develop certain functions, or develop them with great difficulty or in limited ways.

So what is Schore telling us? If an infant doesn’t receive the kind of emotional interactions it needs from its caretakers during the early months of life, its brain won’t develop normally. Certain neurons that should have interconnected will instead die. “Use it or lose it”—if you don’t get what you need during those first two years, that experience will affect you for life. As my own client translates it, this means “brain damage.” You might be able to modify that damage with a lot of hard work, but neuroplasticity has its limits. You will never be the person you might have been if you’d gotten what you needed during that critical period of emotional development.

A deeply sobering thought. You can call it what you like—bad parenting, failure of attunement, insecure attachment—but when things go wrong between parent and child in the first two years of life, you are permanently damaged by it in ways that cannot be entirely erased. The awareness that you are damaged, the felt knowledge that you didn’t get what you needed and that as a result, your emotional development has been warped and stunted in profound ways—this is what I refer to as basic shame. The concept lies at the heart of the work I do.

Schore’s view invalidates the simplistic theory that mental illness is the result of a chemical imbalance in your brain. It’s not that you lack sufficient serotonin in your neural synapses; rather, the existence or lack of certain neurons, and the interconnections between them, has been permanently altered by failures of attachment during the first two years of life. You can’t fix that with a drug. Cognitive-behavior therapy might teach you some useful techniques for coping with your damage but it won’t make you into a different person. You’ll never be just like the person who went through the emotional experiences she needed during that critical period.

Two other lecturers in this video link the experience of secure attachment during this critical period to the development of both a fundamental sense of self-esteem and the ability to feel empathy for others. The relationship to shame and narcissistic defenses against it is implicit. Either you get what you need from your caretakers during those early months and your brain develops in such a way that you have a fundamental self-confidence and security in the world; or you don’t get what you need and the residue—the neurological damage—is basic shame. Either your caretakers are emotionally attuned to you and you develop (neurologically) the capacity to empathize with other people; or those caretakers let you down and as a result, your constant struggle for a sense of your own worth and importance powerfully limits your ability to empathize with other people.

Near the end of the video, Schore stresses the importance of joy in the attachment experience—that is, the infant’s attunement with its mother in the experience of her joy and interest in her baby is crucial for optimal development. If you don’t have that experience, if you don’t feel that your mother experiences joy in your presence and finds you beautiful—it will permanently damage your brain as it develops. In an earlier post on my website, After Psychotherapy, I wrote that the baby whose mother doesn’t adore it (or feel profound joy and interest in her baby) “never gets over it, not really.” Now I can say why: it’s because the neurological development of its brain was permanently altered by the failure to get what was needed during the first year of life.

Watch the video here.

Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. in Psychology Today

17 thoughts on “The Origins of Shame

  1. Thank you for this entry and leading me to the video! This was incredibly exciting information for me since I come from the social science fields of sociology and anthropology. I teach intercultural competence and cultural adaptation to my students, which is really a fancy way of saying empathy. It’s faciniating to hear how this basic human value/ability has a neurological basis in early childhood which explains why some people are much better at what is called “perspective shifting” than others. It also gives a biological/psychological/sociological explanation to why prejudice,racisim, and polarization of human differences are often linked to traumatic experiences. It makes me wonder why we don’t invest more resources into suporting mothers and infants and the harm that we must be causing in our societies by pressuring women to go back to work so soon etc. Today I’m going to go home and smother my two daughters (aged 5 and 11 months) in hugs and kisses! Thank you!

  2. This is an amazing post. I am quite fascinated by the brain functions and how that affects the relationships we have with others. Most of my personal research has been in the area of human sexuality and brain function. In the last few months I have been researching NPD. Many of the articles I have read attribute NPD to early childhood abuse but they have not articulated how or why early childhood abuse creates NPD. This post has been quite illuminating. All the articles I have read have also stated that someone with NPD is not able to change or get help. Do you also concur that this would be the case with NPD, due to the damage that is caused to the brain in infancy or do you think some kind of therapy would be condusive?

    1. There is no known cure for NPD. Conclusive ability to fix… no. I would like to believe, however, that certain aspects of personality, coping, behavior and psychological reasoning are capable of at least a modicum of change. This may be a naive assumption, unfortunately, for some narcissists. The same argument is at play when clinicians argue about the proclivity towards substance abuse among those born to addicts/drinking moms. I have difficulty with strict determinism when it comes to personal choice. Even though the internet is screaming with opinions about the inability to ‘fix’ a narcissist, and albeit important to understand that they are neurologically different, I want to believe that at least one in a million could, through psychotherapy, at least learn how to relate and connect with others in a more socially acceptable fashion. Having said that, dramatic personality disorders present a massive challenge and I wouldn’t want to have to live with one.
      And it must be said, as you and I both are undoubtedly aware, that we can’t fix anyone else. Whether or not they can change themselves is another story…

      1. Thank you for yoru response. Yes, I was curious because there was only one article sataing NPD was fixable and it was a woman claiming that her husband had NPD and was cured. Of course they were also promoting their book on the subject. It’s really sad when someone had talent and intelligence at the onset but due to factors beyond one’s control such as the early infancy invironment cause brain damage such that one can not function in a healthy way throughout life. Your imput is much appreciated and as you have stated we can only work on ourselves. Part of my healing process is understanding the how and why of it all. I am no longer in relationship with this person but we have had mutual friends for the past 30 years so every now and then their name pops up—of course no one but me knows about the NPD—-everyone else just buys into the fake personna that they have created. Once again, thank you for your insights very helpful to me at this juncture in my life.


  3. I think with other cognitive processes that have critical periods–grammar, for instance–we have realized that the brain is more receptive during certain periods, but unless there is complete absence of that stimulus during the critical period, the brain can continue to develop long after the critical period. So, you can learn grammar even with limited exposure when you are under 15 or so. The problem is when there is no exposure at all.

    I think it is fairly rare for a parent to be absolutely neglectful of their infants in all regards. The closest approximation of this may be institutional care in infancy–and we do see disturbances in the ability to attach with children placed in those environments very early. Most people just aren’t that consistent in their responses. I am somewhat skeptical of deprivation in infancy creating permanent brain damage.

    1. Hi there…this comes from anecdotal evidence and may or may not have anything to do with what you wrote. I agree with you and am also skeptical about the idea of permanent brain damage, but as far as the ability to attach, I am not sure. I was married to a man who was adopted from an orphanage by two extremely loving, well-adjusted parents. No matter what they did for him, he didn’t seem to really care about them. I assumed he loved them, but I noticed he used them more than anything else. We had three children together…two he adopted who were with me when we met, and one we had together. Later on, when I could not seem to get him to care about the marriage (infidelity, alcoholism, etc.), we divorced. His first step was to ignore the two he had adopted and raised and cut them out of his life as if he never knew them. Then, later, he stole our bio son’s inheritance from his grandfather (my ex’s father) to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and spent it on nothing tangible. It’s gone. He is so detached from people, even his own children. He has never been curious about his own birth parents or a son he had before we got married. I have often wondered at what point he was adopted from the orphanage (I did not wonder about this until after his parents died and could not ask this question). I have wondered if something happened in his brain because of a lack of attachment and bonding in those early months, which to me, would be a type of brain damage. What do you think?

  4. This is great information, Scott. But may I be so bold as to suggest it’s not complete.There are many of us who didn’t get that incredible bonding when we were young and yet we went on to create fantastically connected and loving relationships. Loving my children – giving them all my love, affection, devotion, and presence has been the most incredible healing experience. Inwas healed through my love for my children. I wonder if it’s possible that loving your child can connect and bring to life whatever neurons were deemed ‘dead’ . I went through absolute hell to get healthy (addiction, severe PTSD, an major depression), but I’m living proof that redemption and full recovery are real…I think that phenomenon should be deeply studied and thoroughly considered. No one is permanently damaged unless he/she chooses to be that way. We are born with free will and we can always change what we don’t like. Some of the most loving and open hearted people I know experienced the most horrific abuse in their upbringing. Yes, it made them broken. But like Hemmingway so beautifully wrote, ” The world breaks everyone. And afterward some are stronger at the broken places.” No one is doomed.

  5. Interesting Scott. Most of my papers in grad school were on attachment theory, and when I lecture I discuss attachment and emotional dysregulation, as well as the invalidating environment. I admit I have always thought of genetics (nature) as being “pre-birth” and nurture as being “post-birth,” but what you said makes so much more sense now that I think of it that way. Another great video (videos) to watch on this subject are done by Bruce Perry and others, and produced by the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute. They offer a PhD in Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology. I was very interested in this but it is not approved for licensing as a psychologist so did not go for it. Thanks again for a great post Scott!

  6. It’s interesting. In The Nature-Nurture debate (a collection of essays ISBN-10: 0631217398) – there are experiments that show gender re-assignment at birth (due to ‘birth defects’) failed. Even if raised as the new sex, a ‘genetic’? drive led to ‘birth sex’ behaviour. This strongly supported a genetic element in neonatal behaviour and in the acquisition of new behaviours. In turn this seems to promote the idea of pre-determined ‘genetic’ wiring, which would balance the above account.
    I believe that the brains plasticity enables the development of empathic structures (and others). A lack of natal / post-natal nurture is not irreversible.
    I wonder what the background conditions for this experiment were that might have effected outcomes and interpretation? Whatever they were, I don’t feel I can support their conclusion.

  7. And from my parent perspective…as a mom who nursed her babies, snuggled them skin-to-skin,responded to their cries, treats them with kindness and respect, gives them words for their feelings, smiles with them, laughs with them…They have nothing to ‘override’ from their earliest days. Those neurons have connected in beautiful, wonderful ways. This mom stopped the cycle of abuse. My children will not know that fear and unpredictability.

  8. Wow…the plasticity of the brain is amazing…two brain surgeries in nine months has proven that to me…refeeding has allowed the brain to begin working as it should…and so–it leaves me to wonder about the abuse and neglect that began from the earliest days. The baby who wasn’t wanted…who should’ve been a boy…who cried…who grew into a toddler who was berated and ridiculed–and hit. Much to think about. It doesn’t make me want to ‘give up’…this makes me even more determined–WATCH ME! contradict the research…I have beaten the odds–I am more successful than I ‘should’ be, given the circumstances….WATCH ME! ‘override’ the abuse of the past to be the person I am designed to be.

  9. Well said. I spent some time trying to figure out what label(s) fit my ex-husband (sociopath, narccisist, addict, etc.). I eventually had to cease and desist as it was wasted energy with no real conclusions. What I did determine, however, is that his early non-relationship with mom (which I saw in childhood photos and vidoes) laid the groundwork that led him down a very destructive path without the ability to use healthy coping mechanisms. The broken man he became was hatched in the infant who never bonded. It’s sad and the destruction caused in so many lives is heartbreaking.

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