Awhile back my forty six year old brother revealed a life long struggle with clinical depression. He is a person with a master's degree, a healthy career in the midst of a recession, a lovely wife and a brace of nice children. He lives in a comfortable home, provides well for his family, enjoys meaningful employment. No person on the outside would guess this good looking healthy man suffers from crippling issues of self worth. He admitted that around his wife and kids he does mostly alright, but the thought of ever losing them fills him with fear and despair, even if it's only a vacation they are taking.
It occurred to me that some of his problem was rooted in the dysfunction of our family when we were growing up. My father used "shame" as a method of control. Some very shameful things happened. He didn't punish us on the level of disliking our behaviors, he was about tearing us down at the core. My father was a proverbial bully. He didn't physically abuse us, although I do believe that would been have less damaging. Yet he would rail on for hours about what was wrong and terrible about us. His voice would raise and I was frightened. I didn't know any other families with this pattern.
The other families I knew might ground their children. Some took away a privilege such as watching TV or watching a favorite program, none talking about being a worthless human being. At the time I grew angry with my father, it was so clear he was big and we were small. He had money and we had none. He was so fond of reminding us the house and everything in it, including our clothing belonged to him. He often repeated that he had no problems in life before us kids were born, we had ruined everything for him. As an adult I came to blame my mother for being complicit with him.
"Why don't you divorce him?" I asked her again and again. I usually asked her the day after one of his tirades, as a child I had no idea what set him off. It was random. Other times I would pester her after another friend in my social circle announced their parents getting divorced. It seemed to be more and more socially acceptable. My mother, a practicing alcoholic, would dismiss me with a sneer. "You don't understand." She was right. I don't understand, how could she be so cowardly? She once admitted to me the main thing that kept her going was the upper middle class lifestyle. That was more important to her than us kids.
Maybe she kidded herself into thinking we were benefiting more from the music lessons and the private school than we were being damaged by his angry outbursts. She was wrong. Shaming kids affects their self image. A person with poor self image makes many poor choices. All of us kids at times in our lives dabbled in drugs and other self destructive behaviors. We had to live up to our father's expectations I say sarcastically, but it's true. People do live up to expectations.
For many years conventional wisdom in therapy was to re-live and remember these incidents in order to get over them. People reported feeling a rosy glow after a catharsis which lasts about half an hour to an hour. The problem is, and I can say this from experience, is that re-living the experiences doesn't "cure" one of the underlying problem.
The underlying problem is the self absorption of messages: i.e. "you are bad", "you are stupid" "you are shameful" et cetera et cetera, which if subconsciously accepted will taint any nice feelings one might generate. One has a tendency to feel incomprehensively guilty about happiness, as it conflicts with the self image of nastiness created by shaming.
I once admitted to a therapist the shaming my father inflicted. I had an inkling that there was something creepy and sexual about the sadistic way he tore us down so I had decided to characterize it as "sexual abuse." Unfortunately the therapist laughed at me. Very dismissively she explained to me my father's bullying was not sexual but all about shame. I was glad for that piece of information, yet embarrassed anew over her dismissal. I found myself unable to trust her and cut off the conversation for good. Soon after I admitted to a boyfriend what had happened to me. He felt bad for me, which was not a helpful reaction. So I went back into hiding with it.
I would have never spoken of it again but for my brother's admission of clinical depression. I began to think if I could talk openly about it, it wouldn't hurt me. Hiding it, far from making it go away, seemed to have ironically shifted it to center stage. Every time I was asked where I grew up, what my dad did, I would demur. "I'm not close to my parents," I would explain, or "We're estranged," and so on. The kind of answers that would elicit more lurid curiosity.
I searched the Internet for "shaming" and ironically a whole bunch of pornographic and sexual content came up. So much for the therapist's assessment. Shaming is weirdly sexual. I can only imagine the upbringing of someone who finds it erotic to be a sex slave or a "sub" as they are called in their subculture. One person on a question and answer site asked if anyone else had received shaming as a punishment. The question was too old for me to reply to, I surmised this person had a childhood similar to mine.
I felt strangely relieved to realize I was not the only person in the world to have lived through what my family experienced. It seemed instantly slightly less shameful when I read the one answer that was posted. This person talked about the bizarre (non-physical) shaming punishments her mother meted out, and how as an adult she was quite shy. Of course when it happens to someone else, a child, I was all empathetic. The empathy I needed for me.