A friend of mine once told me that “the most successful learning dyad in the history of the world” is the mother-infant/child relationship. Contemporary psychologists who have studied that relationship have discovered that toddlers whose caretakers help them “repair” the loving relationship that existed before the moment shame is elicited, learn guilt and apology instead of chronic shame and denial or withdrawal.
The explanation below (from my article Shame by Any Other Name) is largely drawn from the work of two scholars — ALLAN N. SCHORE, particularly his book AFFECT REGULATION AND THE ORIGIN OF THE SELF: THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT (1994) and D.L. NATHANSON, particularly his book SHAME AND PRIDE: AFFECT, SEX AND THE BIRTH OF THE SELF (1992).
Distinguishing Guilt from Shame
By age two, children develop the ability to empathize with the feelings of another and by age three to evaluate their own conduct against objective behavioral standards. As soon as we are able to experience shame and guilt, we instinctively attempt to regulate our emotional state by engaging in spontaneous acts of confession and reparation. . . . .
Shame . . . “acts as a powerful modulator of interpersonal relatedness and . . . ruptures the dynamic attachment bond between individuals.” When an individual has broken this bond, he wishes to recapture the relationship as it existed before it turned problematic.
Toddlers shamed by their mothers, for instance, naturally initiate appeals to repair the momentary break in the emotional bond resulting from the shame-inducing behavior. This process is called self-righting. It is natural and universal. The shamed toddler reflexively looks up at and reaches toward his mother. Even a preverbal child will spontaneously express this need to be held in an attempt to reaffirm both self and the ruptured relationship, to feel restored and secure.
A healthy and responsive mother accepts and assuages the child’s painful feelings of shame, enabling the toddler to return to a normal emotional state, one in which love and trust are ascendant. If the caregiver is “sensitive, responsive, and emotionally approachable,” especially if she uses soothing sounds, gaze and touch, mother and child are “psychobiologically reattuned,” the “interpersonal bridge” is rebuilt, the “attachment bond” is reconnected, and the experience of shame is regulated to a tolerable emotional state.
This series of events between child and care-giver has been termed the “positive socialization of shame.” It permits the infant to “develop an internal representation of himself as effective, of his interactions as reparable, and of his caregiver as reliable.” . . . Importantly, when shame goes unacknowledged, “it is almost impossible to mend the bond.” The natural resulting inclination to hide one’s misdeeds “creates further shame, which creates a further sense of isolation.”
Thus, while shame in the absence of a consistently repaired interpersonal bridge creates pathology, repair teaches emotional self-regulation, creates “secure attachments” and leads to the development of empathy and conscience.
Tomorrow, How to Make the Apology that is Most Likely to Result in Reconciliation