Hidden wounds from adverse childhood experiences may run in the background and lead to shame. Read on to know how shame from toxic childhood stress still harms us.
KEY POINTS: Adverse childhood experiences shape psychological development, typically leading to shame. Because shame is imprinted in the right brain, it is usually experienced as a felt sense, rather than a conscious thought. Although shame usually goes underground, it exerts chronic harmful effects in adulthood. Shame can be effectively modified, but usually not through traditional talk therapies.
You’ve undoubtedly known adults who on the outside are bright, pleasant, attractive, and/or accomplished. Yet deep inside, they dislike themselves and no amount of persuasion can change the painfully negative way they experience themselves. Perhaps you’ve even felt that way. What’s going on? It seems to defy logic. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) provide a clue to this puzzle.
Recent blogs have explained how abuse, neglect, turmoil at home, or other adverse childhood experiences in the first eighteen years of life are threat conditions. They signal danger to the developing child and often lead to dysregulated stress. Dysregulated stress, in turn, causes changes in the brain and body that influence the course of the many medical and psychological disorders that are predicted by ACEs, as shown below.
As the above diagram depicts, adverse childhood experiences also shape psychological development in ways that commonly lead to shame, self-dislike, and low self-esteem. Shame is feeling bad to the core. It is experiencing the core self as damaged, defective, inadequate, or disgusting.
It overlaps considerably with self-dislike and damaged self-esteem and amounts to self-loathing and self-contempt. (Note that damaged self-esteem is related to many psychological conditions, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, addictions, alcohol abuse, and risky sexual behaviors.) Shame is painful; it typically exacerbates or maintains stress dysregulation.
Shame can be imprinted implicitly in the first months and years of life. The left brain stores and consciously recalls memories with words and logic. However, before the left brain sufficiently develops (by around the third year of life), the right brain stores memories of toxic childhood stress beneath conscious awareness.
What is imprinted is not a logical conclusion that can be described in words. It is more of a felt sense—a sense of “wrongness” that plays out in the body and emotions, not words and logic. Thus, it is usually difficult to talk or reason someone out of shameful feelings (a left-brain, cognitive approach) because the experience of shame is imprinted in the non-verbal right brain.
Shame is secretive, It goes underground, hiding in the shadows. We tend to block it from awareness because it is painful, but it continues to influence our present lives.
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Shame In Later Childhood
By around age three, the left brain is sufficiently developed so that it can consciously process memories with words and reason. Thus, shaming experiences in the later years of childhood (such as verbal criticism or name-calling) can be stored in the left brain. In addition, overwhelming stress in the later years causes the left brain to go offline (to shut down; there’s no time to think or talk), while the right brain, with its deep connections to the survival and emotional regions of the brain, takes over.
Either way, shaming memories can be imprinted afresh and can pile upon old shame memories. Shaming experiences in adulthood (such as a critical boss or rejection in love) can also trigger old implicitly embedded shame memories and stir up many non-verbal symptoms that can seem bewildering—until one realizes that it is childhood shame that is being triggered.