Picking forbidden fruit
Image by -Ola via Flickr

(Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a three-part series on shame and its role in your caregiving experience. In our first part, we look at the origins of shame.)

For you, it may have started with a comment or remark or a look. “Typically children are shamed when they wet their bed, get a bad grade on a test, are picked last for a team, or have an awkward physical appearance,” says Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist on the Clinical Faculty of UCLA.

For mankind, it seemed to have started with Eve. “Shame goes back to Eve, who covered her body and felt shame about her sexuality,” says Dr. Doris Jeanette, a licensed psychologist, author of “Opening the Heart” and director, Center for New Psychology.

For me, shame probably started with my father, who shared his shame through an uncontrollable, and unpredictable, anger. My earliest memory of feeling that shame—that awful reaction that made me feel completely disconnected from my family—was pouring too much sugar on my cereal when I was about five or six. Oh, how I loved sugar on those drap, dreary and dull Rice Krispies! Oh, how that really rubbed my father the wrong way.

Shame. It’s powerful because it creates powerlessness. “It has aspects of humiliation with it. It builds a negative core belief about self,” says Karol Ward, licensed psychotherapist and author of “Find Your Inner Voice: Using Instinct and Intuition Through the Body-Mind Connection.”

My curiously about shame started this past March when I told my life and business coach: “I feel a lot of shame about a decision and do not want to share my decision with my friends.”

Which made me wonder: Where does shame come from? Is it learned? Is it one of our emotions? And, does shame get passed on? Meaning, do we inherit shame, i.e., did I take on shame through my father?

Shame is a learned response to our selves; with shame, we feel that we are broken, wrong, unwelcome.

Unhealed shame passes on to our children, says Dr. J. David Forbes, ABIHM, President-Elect, American Holistic Medical Association and founder/director, Nashville Integrated Medicine. “The core feelings of unworthiness translates to our behavior.”

The shame inside us can be quite frightening to feel because the feeling of shame—that there is something wrong with us—lies within our most vulnerable portion of our being. “If we don’t feel safe to feel that vulnerability,” Forbes says, “then we move to behaviors that will put up walls, which actually just bring us more pain.”

My father’s shame—his father left his mother when he was seven—was so deep that I thought my grandfather had died when my father was a child. We never spoke about my grandfather, which seemed to just scream a mystery to me.

“What happened to your father?” I blurted during one family meal when I was 12. “He died,” my father answered. My older sister, who always discovered the family secrets, set me straight when I was about 13. My father’s Virginian cousin, who hosted me for a Thanksgiving meal when I later lived on my own on the East Coast, added the flavor to the story: My grandfather had left while my grandmother, father and uncle attended a family event. They returned to an empty home and a note.

“We learn shame from someone else who puts their emotional repression on us,” Ward explains. “Their beliefs become our own.”

An unspoken and heart-breaking message behind shame is that your feelings are bad. “You learn to distrust your spontaneity,” Ward says. “You feel you can’t say anything right.”

Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, psychologist, physical therapist and author of the upcoming book, “A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription For Happiness,” sees the effect of shame in her clients she treats for their chronic pain. Lombardo describes the impact of keeping in our shame like trying to stuff our closet. We keep putting stuff in a closet, filling it past its limit, so much so we have to press our body against the closet door to close it.

When we are children, our emotional closet is big—it can hold all the emotions we don’t understand or we are afraid to feel. As we grow older, our closet becomes fuller and fuller until stuffed beyond its capacity. Those emotions, often shame, must go somewhere. “We use energy to keep that stuff in,” Lombardo explains, “and that causes compromises in our immune system.”

And, sometimes we stuff our closets with thoughts and impressions whose interpretations do not serve us, especially when we are children. “Children are ego-centric,” Lombardo says, “and take on responsibility. They interpret a situation as being their responsibility and then they stuff it.”

How we think affects what we do and how we feel. If we interpret a situation as being our fault, we may decide we are not good enough or smart enough or attractive enough. These interpretations become our prescription glasses, Lombardo says. “These are the lenses you see life through. If you believe you are a bad person, you will see evidence that proves that.”

There’s an aspect to shame that involves self-recrimination, adds Anna Stookey, a psychotherapist specializing in health issues. We feel a lack of acceptable, so we become unacceptable to ourselves.

And, shame is shame rather than guilt because it has an aspect that involves self-recrimination, Stookey explains. When my father yelled about too much sugar on those Rice Krispies, my thoughts were: “I am bad because I don’t know how to put on the right amount of sugar.” And, even worse: “I don’t belong here, in this family.”

And, that’s the baloney of shame.

What’s your story of shame? Please feel free to share with us in our comments section below.

Part II: When Shame Shows Up In Caregiving
Part III: Taking on Shame: How Healing Wholes Us

We took our discussion about shame live on Your Caregiving Journey talk show. Dr. David Forbes helped us better understand the origins of shame; listen to our discussion on the player below.

Listen to internet radio with Denise Brown on Blog Talk Radio

About Denise

I began working with family caregivers in 1990 and launched Caregiving.com in 1996 to help and support them. Through my blog, I share words of comfort and offer coping strategies and tips. I also write opinion pieces about recent research, community programs and media coverage of caregiving issues. I've written several caregiving books, including "The Caregiving Years, Six Stages to a Meaningful Journey," "Take Comfort, Reflections of Hope for Caregivers" and "After Caregiving Ends, A Guide to Beginning Again." You can purchase my books and schedule a coaching call with me in our store.


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Isn’t it interesting how our thoughts and feeling affect us so deeply? My mother’s shame was that she was born with the deformity of a cleft palate and lip. Even though she’s had surgeries to correct it, it bothered her her whole life. She has always believed that people don’t like her because she does not have a perfect appearance. The dementia she has now makes it worse. On a couple of occasions, she has believed that one of my daughter’s friends was laughing at her and even secretly took her picture (she was texting). Mom’s shame in her appearance… Read more »

Tim H Swanson

I’m doing research for an ebook I’m writing about how pastors get sucked into addiction (primarily to porn). And it all starts with shame. I found myself asking the same question – where does shame come from? This article is incredibly helpful. Thank you.