Shame and Responsibility

In Allan Schore’s books on self regulation and the brain, he explains early childhood experiences of connection and disconnection, the latter of which he believes is accompanied by shame. We bask in the warmth of our caregiver’s approval and love, and when that is missing, we falter and feel that there is something wrong with us. Schore does not think that this dynamic in and of itself is pathological. Caregivers provide guidance by endorsing growth promoting behaviors and containing self limiting behaviors.

As adults, we go through our lives with a measure of confidence based on that early approval and a fear of defectiveness based on that early disconnection and shame. Our inner experience provides us with guidance as adults in determining our healthiest direction and avoiding directions that work against us. We need judgment to live our lives in the optimal way.

When we make choices and act on them, we try to be good people: to do what is right and regulate our desires. But we are human, after all, and not perfect. Sometimes our feelings get in the way and we do things we regret or we are impulsive in ways that are destructive toward ourselves or other people.

Currently, shame is seen as a “bad” emotion, and much of psychotherapy is directed toward healing unnecessary shame. But one of the reasons this is more complex than it seems is that sometimes we do need to take responsibility for our errors and misdirection. We need to feel bad about hurting ourselves or other people. That bad feeling is the signal from our inner self that we have gone in a wrong direction.

Teasing apart the inner experience that is helpful, even when it feels uncomfortable, and inner experience that is unhelpful because it is based on old patterns is a delicate and essential task of adult life. Exercising discernment about our received knowledge and building ourselves as adults, taking responsibility for the self we are building, and developing our judgment so that it takes us in healthy directions: these are part of the task of continuing our development through a lifetime. As Jack Kornfield says, “You are perfect as you are, and there is still room for improvement.”

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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