Characteristics of a shame based family and how change can happen

by | Feb 6, 2020 | Family life, Personal growth | 0 comments

Description of the term “family based on shame”.

A few weeks ago I wrote a paper on family for my 3-year counseling school. It was to be an essay about my personal path, and about what I had learned from the various readings.
In the following articles, I will reflect on some of this work, adapted for the public, of course. Quotes from books are numbered and can be found at the bottom of the article.

I have chosen the topic of shame and family because I have been confronted with this topic very much in the past years. I’ve been confronted with the shame that I carried deep inside me and that influenced my whole being, my perception of life and the emotions associated with it.

I knew that I came from a dysfunctional home. But in recent months I had a life-altering revelation: My dysfunctional family was founded on shame and so was I.

My observation is that shame is usually – if not always – a reality deeply rooted in the system of a dysfunctional family.

In their book “Facing Shame” authors Merle A. Fossum and Marilyn J. Mason define shame as follows:

“Our definition of shame refers to a humiliation so painful, so overwhelmingly embarrassing, and so deeply degrading that the person feels he or she is sinking into the ground. Shame affects the self-worth, even the whole self of a person.„ [1]

To describe it a little more detailed,

“Shame is an inner feeling of total degradation and inadequacy as a person. It is the self that condemns the self. A moment of shame can mean such painful humiliation or such deep degradation that one feels robbed of one’s dignity or exposed as fundamentally inadequate, bad and rejectable. If the feeling of shame prevails, one always starts from the premise that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate, flawed, worthless or inferior as a human being”.[2]

There are three levels of shame: external, inherited from generation to generation and maintained.  [3]
External shame is an event, often traumatic, that publicly exposes and humiliates the family.
The event can be an embezzlement or a dismissal, leading to loss of family pride, up to an explicit sexual assault in the family.
The protection of the family secret from external shame leads to shame that is inherited over generations. Preserved shame presents itself as a clinical problem.
It is the ongoing shame related dynamic that maintains shame in the family and becomes the interpersonal pattern.

To illustrate the whole thing, I’ve come up with a story to illustrate these dynamics of shame:

Once upon a time there was a traditional American family – mother, father and three children. The children of the family were already grown up and had their own families. Every year they met for Christmas together – and of course the stuffed turkey was a must. In previous years, the mother had always been responsible for the purchase and the preparation of the turkey. 

But this year it was different: the father was now retired, and so they had a smaller income than before. Through the family chat, there was a lot of talk going on about how the costs would be divided this year and who would prepare the turkey. Everyone agreed: Mom’s turkey is the best. She gladly agreed to prepare it this year, like every year. In the process, the children learned that the mother had bought the turkey from an organic retailer; the price was 10 times higher than the price of a “normal” turkey.
Shannon, the middle child, was shocked.

“Spending this much money on meat is insane!”

The other two brothers and sisters were open to discussing what the other alternatives would be.

“There’s a sale going on at this store,”

said Jerry, the youngest child. Robert, the oldest, was not so sure about it.

“We’ve always done it this way, and I think once a year we could easily spend that much money on food!

Now the father joined the chat:

“I think it’s sad if you want to eat cheap meat at Christmas. Especially for my grandchildren! They should also be allowed to eat good meat. If you buy your turkey at one of those cheap grocery stores, I’m going vegetarian this Christmas!”

With this statement the flow of speech in the chat group immediately faltered. The children knew their father and realized: For him his opinion was the only one that counted. Those who did not submit to him were rebellious, disobedient and would be punished with contempt. Christmas would be filled with this negative mood. Finally, Jerry summoned all his courage and explained to the father in a friendly way why they, as brothers and sisters, did not care what meat they would eat and that what mattered most to them was the fellowship of being together.

A few hours later, the mother wrote a private message to Jerry, accusing him of causing his father to fall into a depressive pit because of his “annoyed answer”. She didn’t think it was right that his children treated their father like that. She thought that dad only meant the best and had stood up for his grandchildren.

In the last article I described the 5 freedoms, and explained why I believe that

“a healthy and functioning family is a family in which every family member can live out these five freedoms. It is about the possibility of freely and constructively exercising the powers that stand at our disposal.”

As we have seen in this story, all five of these freedoms have been violated:

1.The freedom to see and hear what is really there at the moment,
instead of what should be, has been, or will be.

2. The freedom to express what I really feel and think,
and not what’s expected of me.

3. The freedom to stand by my feelings,
and not pretend otherwise.

4. The freedom to ask for what I need,
instead of always waiting for permission.

5. The freedom to take risks on your own responsibility,
instead of always playing it safe and not taking chances.

Family interactions are experienced daily in these or similar ways in families marked by shame. Because it is really difficult to see through such dynamics, in this article I would like to discuss the eight rules of a shame based family based on the story I just told. We will look at the first 4 points here, and in the next article we will look at the four others.

John Bradshaw  explains:

“The explicit rules in a dysfunctional family are those of black pedagogy. Parents become dysfunctional because of these false rules that are embedded in their own psyche. It is on these rules that the parents’ attitude towards themselves is based. Without questioning or updating them, they pass them on to their children.” [4]

So let’s take a look at these characteristics of a family based on shame:

The eight rules of a shame based family:

  1. Control
  2. Perfectionism
  3. Blaming = Accusation = Criticism
  4. Denial
  5. Unreliability
    6. No one is listening
    7. The inability to manage conflicts
    8. Disqualification
  • 1.Control

Personal interactions, feelings and behavior must be controlled at all times. Obsession with control is a serious form of incapacitation of the human will. [5]
This control can be achieved by the rigid control of one or more family members over the others in a tyrannical manner. Members without control live in aversion or even fear of those in power. [6]
The above-mentioned story only gives us a hint of what I’m about to write some more about.

Let’s assume that the father in this story functions exactly that way. He always reacted with this authoritarian attitude. Everyone bowed under the power of his emotional and mental waves of control, which consisted of harshness, rigidity, shame, recriminations and depression.
Such people usually can neither feel themselves nor do they like themselves.They are always trying to survive, to “keep control” while feeling overwhelmed and like a failure.

Isabelle Filliozat says:

“If a person does not feel worthy of respect, he demands respect and consideration, but without taking responsibility for his behavior. The person has no natural authority, but tries to exercise power over others, trying to evade their gaze. [7]

  • 2.Perfectionism

Always be “right.” Always do the “right thing.”[8]
“The basic principle of life in a perfectionist family is based on fear and trying not to make mistakes. The members live according to an image projected to the outside world”. [9]
With the rule of perfectionism, we often see people who fearfully avoid what is bad, wrong or deficient in their eyes.  [10]
In such a family, the mere thought of trying something else is progress. Often no one dares to express such ideas, because no one wants to attract the pejorative attitude and rejection of the other person (in our story the father). No one wants to be the bad guy or the bad girl.

3. Blaming = Accusation = Criticism

If something does not go as planned, blame someone (yourself or someone else). Blame is omnipresent in a shame bound family and in all relationships that contain a strong shame component. Blaming can be unmistakable, as in the message: “If it weren’t for you, I would be happy”. But often guilt is masked as something else. [11]
It is astonishing and also sad, how such an exchange about the meat can bring a family into such a conflict and finally throw the father into a depressive pit while the child is put in the dock?

4.Denial or refusal of the 5 freedoms
This rule is consistent with the rule of perfectionism. “You should not think, wish, imagine, observe or hear as you do. You should think, wish, imagine, observe or hear as the perfectionist ideal requires. “[12]
Feelings, thoughts, or experiences that emphasize the family’s continuing need should not be expressed openly.
[13]Fear, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, rejection, neediness and worry are feelings that are forbidden in such a family.[14]

In most cases, family members do not know what they are actually feeling. They function according to these unspoken rules and are not even aware of what is going on inside. In the example above, the mother blamed her son for daring to tell the father what he really thinks. Of course. A mother, trapped in the shame based dynamic, is unable to say, “I’m scared, powerless and lonely if this situation makes your father fall back into the hole of depression! Her only way to deal with such feelings is by assigning blame (see rule no.3): “Why were you so hard on your father? Because of you he is feeling bad!”

In the next article we will look at the 4 other points in the light of this story, and also see how these points contrast with the 5 freedoms. I believe that recognizing such a dynamic – whether it is the memory of one’s own childhood or the reality of the current family dynamic – is the first step in starting a process of change.

In the following article I will then talk about a diagram that will help us to see where we stand and how we can move from there towards a “healthy family”.

[1] Fossom/Mason, Facing shame, 1986, p.xii
[2] Fossom/Mason, Facing shame, 1986, p.xii
[3] Fossom/Mason, Facing shame, 1986, p.xiii
[4] J.Bradshaw, la famille, 2004, p.12
[5] J.Bradshaw, la famille, 2004, p.130
[6] Fossom/Mason, Facing shame, 1986, p.88
[7] I.Filliozat, Il n’y a pas de parent parfait, 2008, p.83

[8] Fossom/Mason, Facing shame, 1986, p.91
[9] J.Bradshaw, la famille, 2004, p.130
[10] Fossom/Mason, Facing shame, 1986, p.92
[11] Fossom/Mason, Facing shame, 1986, p.94
[12] J.Bradshaw, la famille, 2004, p.131
[13] J.Bradshaw, la famille, 2004, p.131
[14] Fossom/Mason, Facing shame, 1986, p.96


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