If you are like most people, you probably do not think of your emotions as useful at all. Except, perhaps, the happy ones that make you feel good.
But what about all the others? Such as hurt, frustration, anxiety, apprehension, sadness or anger, for example?
Thanks to research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, we now know that we are born biologically wired with emotions for a reason. In fact, emotions are valuable messages from our bodies.
One of my main goals as a psychologist, author and blogger is to make everyone aware of this invaluable resource — your feelings — and the importance of paying attention to them and listening to their messages.
But there is one emotion that, in my opinion, belongs in a separate category from the rest. Like the other feelings, it does carry a message from your body. But that message is limited in its value and is also damaging to your inner self.
Let’s start with the official definition of shame, straight from the dictionary. Shame is defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Synonyms are humiliation, mortification, chagrin, ignominy, embarrassment, and indignity.
So what message is your body sending when you feel shame? “You just did something wrong or foolish. Stop it now, and do not do it again.”
That message is helpful when you’ve actually done something wrong; something that harms yourself or someone else. But I have seen shame rear it’s painful head in many lovely people who do not deserve it, and over many situations which do not call for it.
In my discussions with thousands of people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), I have seen that growing up with your feelings ignored makes you prone to shame. There are good reasons why CEN makes you prone to shame.
If as a child you received the message that your emotions are excessive, burdensome or unwelcome, it is natural to feel ashamed of having them. Living your adult life feeling ashamed of such a deeply personal, biological expression of who you are – your emotions – predisposes you to feel shame all too readily about everything else.
When Lotta woke up with a terrible hangover, she realized she drank way too much the night before and had made a fool of herself. She felt a pang of shame and vowed to never drink that much again.
Scott realized that he was subtly flirting with a colleague at a conference. He thought about how loyal his wife was to him, and he felt shame about his own behavior. He stopped himself immediately.
Olivia loved the leftover cake so much that she ate three big pieces in one sitting. Soon after, feeling ill, she felt shame about having over-indulged herself. “This feels disgusting in every way,” she thought. “I’m going to give away the remainder of this cake so that this will not happen again.”
Cynthia reviewed everything she’d said at the party the night before, going over and over it in her head. “I was too forward, that was too silly, I shouldn’t have said that dumb comment,” she ruminated. With each recollection, she felt a pang of shame.
Erik wanted to tell his family about his promotion at work, but every time he started to announce it, he felt a jolt of inexplicable shame that held him back.
Jorge tried not to ever think about the abuse he had suffered as a child, because every time he did, he was overcome with a terrible feeling of shame.
Your shame is helpful only if it offers you a healthy action. Clearly, Lotta’s, Scott’s and Olivia’s shame is sending them helpful messages to make better choices, combined with enough discomfort to drive them to follow through on those choices.
On the other hand, Cynthia’s shame is draining her energy by causing her to ruminate needlessly. Erik’s shame is holding him back from the positive accolades and pride he deserves. And Jorge’s shame is blocking him from healing the childhood trauma that was not his fault or choice.
There are no messages for any actions in the Unhelpful Shame group. It would be helpful for Cynthia, Erik and Jorge to realize their shame is damaging them and start to manage it instead of letting it control them.
Keep in mind that every feeling of shame puts a chink in your self-esteem if you allow it to continue unchecked and unprocessed. So if you hear a healthy message, the sooner you can listen to it and put it aside, the better.
If you feel a lot of shame, there’s a good chance you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). But CEN is often subtle and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.
Adults who were emotionally neglected in childhood can be quite perfectionistic and hard on themselves. But for many, it does not stop there.
Why? Because the messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect run deep. They go to the heart of the child and stay there for a lifetime. They not only damage your ability to understand and trust your own feelings, but they also damage your ability to understand and trust yourself.
The messages of CEN are like invisible infusions of guilt and shame that happen every day in the life of the child.
When, because of emotional neglect, children receive the message from their parents that their feelings are a burden, excessive, or simply wrong, they take a highly effective, adaptive action. They naturally push their emotions down, under the surface so that they will trouble no one.
Believe it or not, this brilliant strategy usually works quite well. As a child, you become un-sad, un-angry, un-needy, and overall unemotional so that your parents are less bothered or burdened by you. Life becomes easier in the family, but life inside you becomes deeply lonely.
As a child of CEN, you are set up to feel, on some deep level for your entire life, that you are a burden, excessive, or somehow wrong.
Because Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects your relationship with your own feelings, it sets you up to feel guilty and ashamed for the very personal, inescapable human experience of having feelings.
It feels wrong to feel your feelings, and wrong to let others see your feelings. And it feels right to hide your feelings. You may even try not to have feelings at all. Yet your feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expression of your true self. They will not be denied.
Trying to deny your feelings is like the classic little Dutch boy trying to block the hole in the dike with his finger. It may feel like it works temporarily, but those feelings just keep coming and growing and pressurizing, like the water behind the dike. Being unable to control them and stop them altogether makes you feel weak and incompetent. And ashamed.
Since many emotionally neglected adults were not actively mistreated in childhood, they may remember their childhoods as fairly happy and carefree. When they look back on their childhoods for an explanation for their issues and struggles in their adult lives, they can’t pinpoint any incidents or factors to explain their current problems.
Between a “happy childhood” and inexplicable emotions, they are left with the assumption that some deep part of themselves is seriously amiss. “It’s my own fault. Something is wrong with me,” is a natural conclusion.
I hope that as you read the Guilt/Shame messages above, you realized one glaring fact about them: THEY ARE ALL FALSE!
Now please read the three vital and true remedies below. If you absorb them and own them and follow them, they will change how you feel about yourself and your life.
You can learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect leads to excess guilt and shame in adulthood in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.