Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Shame, Shame on You - Shaming and BPD: Part 1

What happens to you as a child impacts who you become as an adult. Everyone handles this in their own way. Your genetic nature and the environments that affected you contribute to how you, as an individual, learn to cope [or not] with how you grew up. That’s a big factor in Borderline Personality Disorder; nature and nurture. Often people with BPD come from an environment of abuse. Overt sexual and physical abuse are intensely painful and detrimental experiences though relatively easy to identify as abusive environments. Sometimes though, abuse happens and you’re not exactly aware that it is occurring. One when you’re a child you have no idea what abuse is. When you’re small, all you know is that what happens to you, is what’s happening to you. It’s all you know. You don’t know that something is wrong,  or inappropriate, or abusive. You know that you feel bad, or uncomfortable, or afraid, or in pain, but beyond that, you also feel helpless because what can you possibly do about it if the adults, the people that are supposed to be your source of love and trust, reinforce an environment of negative behavior?

Nothing. That’s what you do. Because you don’t know better.

It’s not your fault.

When the abuse that occurs is more subtle it’s harder to identify.

Scenario 1: A boys mother tries to kill him.
Scenario 2: A girls father says she was a mistake.

Which is the abusive scenario? I know I didn’t fool anyone here. They both are. The first is an obvious example. The second is a more subtle expression of verbal abuse, namely: Shaming.

I’ve talked about shaming before in the Defectiveness/Shame Schema. You should go back and read it: Here.

Shaming is a technique used by abusive people to divert attention away from their own behavior and their own issues. It’s done to put pressure and maintain control over their victim. The difference between blaming and shaming is that in blaming someone tells you that you did something bad, in shaming someone tells you that you are something bad.

Often Shame, Guilt, and Embarassment all kind of bleed together in my mind, but they’re really very distinct things. The relationship and contrasts between all of these are complex and sometimes contested.

Wiki gives us this between Shame and Guilt:

Psychoanalyst Helen B. Lewis argued that, "The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus." 

Similarly, Fossum and Mason say in their book Facing Shame that "While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one's actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person." 

Following this line of reasoning, Psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman concludes that "Shame is an acutely self-conscious state in which the self is 'split,' imagining the self in the eyes of the other; by contrast, in guilt the self is unified."

Which directly supports the idea that shaming is something done to you to make you feel something painful about yourself.

Like Guilt, Shame and Embarrassment are distinct. Shame does not necessarily involve public humiliation while embarrassment does, that is, one can feel shame for an act known only to oneself but in order to be embarrassed one's actions must be revealed to others. Shame is a reaction to the act of self-judgment, where embarrassment is a reaction to the perceived judgment from others.

The sad fact is, when you’re taught to feel poorly about yourself as a child, it sticks with you. Eventually you don’t even have to be doing something shameful to feel ashamed of yourself or something you’re doing. You begin to question everything you do. You begin to measure yourself by an imaginary scale of “You’ll never be as good as [this/that],”, or, “If [so-and-so] saw that they would laugh at you.” You don’t learn that you can take pride in things you do, or that simply attempting to do something is an accomplishment all on its own.

Often with personality disordered people, or just people that internalize that behavior, the cycle perpetuates with their own children. The shame a person feels builds up to anger and resentment throughout their life. As a parent a person might misappropriate their own anger onto their children. Because the environment they were raised in wasn’t loving, wasn’t supportive, wasn’t safe, they can unintentionally mimic it. They don’t realize there is anything wrong with it simply because it’s all they know. This leads to making their own children feel worthless, useless, unloved, and unappreciated. It leads to the projection of blame, shame, and contempt onto others to redirect it from themselves as well.  This perpetuates the cycle of fear, obligation, and guilt.

If all you’ve ever heard growing up is:

·         "You were a mistake"
·         "You could never do what he/she does"
·         "You've ruined my life"
·         "We are all disappointed in you"
·         "Shame on You!"

Then you likely have an internalized sense of fear, obligation, and guilt. Out of the Fog describes these feelings like this:

Fear - if you don't do what this person wants then there will be hell to pay.
Obligation - you are somehow made to feel indebted to this person - you are made to believe that you owe them something even though you have taken nothing from them.
Guilt - you are unworthy - you have broken some unwritten rules - rules which you never agreed to and which were never fully justified or explained to you.

If you’re someone that suffers with BPD I’m willing to bet that you know these feelings and the uncertainty and anxiety that are spawned from them. If you’re someone that has loved or lived with someone with BPD, you may have felt these sort of things thrown your way.

From the BPD standpoint the re-direction isn’t usually out of a desire to hurt the other person so much as it is to shield the shame they feel. If you can make the other person focus on themselves, they can’t focus on you. That doesn’t make it better or okay. It’s still hurtful. But the intent isn’t necessarily to hurt for the sake of hurting.

It can seem like it though. Remember when I talked about TheWitch and The Queen “types” of Borderline descriptions. Often this happens when people need to push people down in order to feel better about themselves.

And then in a crazy twist of maladaptive coping mechanisms, in order to avoid feeling shame people can blame and hate… themselves. 

Stayed tuned for tomorrow's episode. 


  1. I love this post--one of your best ones. Made me think about where responsibility-taking comes in when such maladaptive behaviors are done to others. I wonder if most with BPD just consider such things part of the package, or they can really own them. Can you say more on that sometime?

    1. Hm... Yes, I'll put more thought into this and pull it together into a larger post.

    2. I can't speak for "most" people, but I do think that in order to stop the cycle, someone with BPD (like me) does need to own their behaviors and try to change them. As long as I felt "entitled" to my dysfunction, I was doomed to continue it as I expected others around me to approve of my self-destruction and be there for me when I hit bottom again. Suprise to me! Other people have feelings and rights as well :). I think it IS hard for me to see past that sometimes because of the shame it causes even just to admit I am hurting people I love and I am capable of continuing to hurt them.

    3. I couldn't have said it better myself. It is important for us to take responsibility for ourselves. That can't be done though without first understanding what's going on, so it's important to get that information out there.

      If you don't mind I'll probably touch on your words here.

    4. I do believe with many that have BPD that they don't really understand what is going on so it's impossible to really own it. They're just reacting to things that or people that are reacting to them. It's all instinct and reaction and not necessarily reflection and understanding.

  2. As a person struggling with BPD who is also a parent now, this really hits home for me. I think about the shame, fear, and guilt that my own parents instilled in me and I like to think "I would never do that to my kid!" but the things I have done to hide my shame are...shameful and often seem out of my control, so I cannot safely say that. And that is extremely hard to deal with, but also my most intense reason for wanting to heal. Thank you for all your work on this blog. It is amazing.

    1. I've had these thoughts as well. I don't have children, but I've often thought that because I am aware of this kind of behavior, maybe since I can identify it, I would be able to avoid affecting my own kids this way. I think knowing and being aware are the best things you can do.

      I know how hard it is. You seem to have the kind of emotional intuition that comes with some of us. Self-awareness is almost it's own nemesis b/c for as well as we can see what we do, it's also not something we have complete control over which compounds the guilt. ::hugs:: You're trying, and that's important.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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