Shame Stalking

By Ken Wells - 10/27/2020


Series One: Blog Seventy-Two

“A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it” — Mary Karr

“In troubled families abuse and neglect are permitted, it’s the talking about them that is forbidden”

I had been told more than once to not live my life with my eyes glued on the rear view mirror. So I didn’t. The problem was that I didn’t even notice the big mac truck ramming me from behind again and again. It didn’t help to become paranoid either. One bicyclist joked he was so paranoid that he placed a rear view mirror on his stationary bike. There were times that life seemed that way, swinging from one extreme to the other, trying to make sense of it all. What I have learned to do is strike a balance. Soren Kierkegaard said “life is meant to be lived forward but can only be understood backwards”. With my feet planted in the present and my eyes focused on the future, I believe there is wisdom in looking backwards and unravelling past experience for understanding current times. There is no either/or-black or white approach that is helpful. Life is a dynamic blend of interpreting the present by understanding the past. 

Core beliefs become concretized during early impressionable years of childhood development. This is where toxic shame become cemented in the belief system of our lives. Unintended harm in childhood rivets mistaken beliefs that later dominate adult living. When parents do not spend sufficient amounts of time with a child on his terms, not theirs, the emergent belief for that child is that “I don’t matter”. It fuels the belief in a child that he/she must become a human doing and avoid their essential being in order to feel important, noticed and loved. When a child grows up in an unpredictable environment, he/she grows up with pervading anxiety that impacts and impedes adult intimacy later in life. Early childhood becomes a breeding ground for toxic shameful mistaken beliefs that becoming a driving force in the life of an addict. 

One of the critical components of addressing shame resolution is shame recognition.  Shame has a way of wrapping its tentacles of oppression around life and choking spirit and potential. It dominates and bleaches out all the fun and mires misery into the fabric of everyday life. Unhealthy rules, regs and mistaken beliefs dominate dysfunctional families. It did mine in many different ways. Religion was oppressive in the home I grew up in.  So was poverty. My parents raised 9 kids of their own plus my oldest sister’s 3.  I wouldn’t say we were “dirt poor” but the dirt was always close by. My dad and mom both worked numerous jobs and we lived a lifestyle of rationing everything. We rationed how many baths you took during the week; how much milk you used at breakfast (1 glass of milk or milk on your cereal but not both); carefully measured ice cream from the box; how long you could have the fan on at night in the summertime (save electricity). etc. My older brother Jimmy always resented all of these restrictions and would complain about it. He hated the rationing of baths. He would want to fill the water beyond the allotted amount. At times, my mom or dad would tell him to shut off the water and they would argue. Then he would leave a ring around the tub and my mom would get on his case about that. He became chronically irritable and seemed always angry. 

There wasn’t any personal time for affection, attunement of spirit and emotional support from parents. With all the kids and all the jobs, emotional nurturing was sparse, for Jimmy and all of us. When I step back and reflect on the life Jimmy experienced as a kid, his response of anger, discontent and constant complaint doesn’t seem all that big of a mystery. It even made sense. The history says more about why the shame and pain and that the behavior was a likely result. For sure, Jimmy was stuck in the dregs of debilitating shame fed to him in a family environment whose only response to deprivation was displaced rage.

Unhealthy rules, regs and mistaken beliefs dominate dysfunctional families. Shame is oppressive. To be oppressed means to oppress. Martin Luther King once said that “violence is the language of the unheard”. When the needs of a child go unnoticed for whatever reason, the child becomes oppressed. In desperation, acting out is the predictable behavior. The feeling of desperation does not lie dormant. It will go somewhere. Anger is its release, either inward or outward.  Shame becomes hidden with the inward/outward behavioral exhibit. Oft times, in trying to correct the behavior, addressing the core shame is overlooked. Yet, shame has a certain vortex nature to it. As it spirals, it becomes more intense and dominates outward behavior. Before shame can be reduced and effectively managed it must be recognized. Shame can be effectively exposed by uncovering mistaken beliefs that fuel the toxic shame.

Kids become collectors of mistaken beliefs. It’s the impressionable nature of all children. When I was a child, we attended a church that was oppressive. When the preacher portrayed sinners who were not part of our church as burning in hell, I believed him. So when my Little League coach was killed in a car train wreck, I envisioned him burning in hell and hearing him scream because he was a Catholic. What else would a little kid believe than what was told him.  When my mom told us that the racket and chaos that all of us kids created was driving her to Jacksonville, I believed her. Jacksonville is a town in west central Illinois that had a mental institution. I went to bed at night trying to be quiet fearing that when I woke up in the morning my mom would have left for Jacksonville. What else would an impressionable little boy believe than what mom said. 

In order for shame to be managed you must first recognize when it is present. Oft times shame goes unnoticed because it can hide in our bodies. Some people feel the shame in their stomach, their neck, their lower back, their chest, tension in their head or in a clenched jaw. It is important to recognize where shame resides in your body in order to manage it. Sometimes shame is smothered with compulsive eating and a myriad of other uncontrollable behaviors. 

Shame is always rooted in mistaken beliefs that block intimacy. Before you can dismantle domination of shame in your life you must recognize the message of shame and whose voice is telling you this mistaken belief. Most people say “I am telling myself this.” Yet, mistaken beliefs about self come from early childhood education. Children don’t come into the world believing they don’t matter. It becomes ingrained with overt or covert messages as a child, purposefully or unwittingly from primary caregivers. Your assignment is to identify the mistaken belief that dominates and fuels shame in your destructive behavior and then do contact tracing so that you can prepare to give back the shame that was carelessly given you at a very impressionable age. 


  • Can you recall feeling trapped by a mistaken belief system you were taught as a kid growing up? (maybe it was about God, money, relationships etc.) Share what it was like for you as a child to live under the implications of this mistaken belief system. 
  • How does that system impact you as an adult or what was it like to change your beliefs? Did it impact how you related to others, family or friends?

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