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