Shame is NOT an Emotion

Just let the title of this blog writing sink into your brain.
“Shame is a thermostat: if it fails to function, regulation of relationships becomes impossible.” Suzanne Retzinger

Shame is NOT an Emotion. Does this surprise you as much as it did me?

Let me explain from a Gestalt perspective what I have learned.

Shame is an affect. An affect is something everyone has – every human on the planet has affect. Shame is the most basic, primal affect, AND an affect EVERYONE is born with.

I am not talking about TOXIC shame as that is destructive to our psyche and our lives. (This is not Brene’ Brown teachings and her work is so needed on the planet.)


Shame is about belonging. Shame does a service to teach us how to belong. We need shame as human beings. Shame is the master affect that is closest to our true sense of self. Everyone ever born on the planet is born with the affect of shame.

Shame is the AFFECT that turns into an emotion; i.e. anger, embarrassment, fear, guilt.

Shame is needed to have guilt. If we did not have shame to tell us when we FEEL guilty, we would not be able to make amends or to be forgiven by others. (think 12 step programs). Shame is a relational affect. It is the affect of social control and adaptation.

As human beings, we can only survive in relationships. We need that affect of shame to be in a relationship.

Now, I can almost hear you saying, “What in the world is she talking about?”

As a Gestalt therapist, and as a therapist who understands Erik Erickson’s Theory of Psycho-social development, I recognize that at age 18 months to 3 years children develop Autonomy vs Shame / Doubt.

Caregivers of children this age use shame to help children develop in relationships. This is not a BAD thing. As an example, if a child comes into my office and starts to break things, I would say to them, “In this office, we are kind to my things, and we do not break them.” This is a form of shaming that helps the child understand that it is not OK to be destructive in my office. A parent may say to a child, “When you hit other children, they will not want to be your friend.” This is using a form of shame to teach the child, “hey, I better not hit, as that will not help me gain friends.” Shame helps children understand the context of their worlds and helps them to be relational. Using shame in this way teaches the child what is acceptable in their world. It also teaches Autonomy.

Now, conversely, a parent or caregiver that uses shame as a type of weapon is not helping the child gain autonomy or to be relational. Phrases such as, “don’t cry or I will give you something to cry about,” or “What are you, stupid, can’t you figure this out on your own?!” or any other negative things many children (and adults who were children) hear about themselves is the toxic shame that our society seems to heap on each other on a regular basis.

Toxic shame teaches a child that, “I am not good enough, I am not smart, I can’t do things right, I am stupid, No one cares about me, I don’t matter.”

Are you starting to understand the difference between the relational building shame and toxic shame? I am also learning here with you as I write as it is making more and more sense. Shame, to me, as many of you, has always been a “BAD” and negative emotion.

“Toxic shame is that sense of disconnection that overwhelms the child’s ability to self-correct.” Felicia Carroll, MEd, MA, LMFT, RPT-s

If a child can not self-correct, then they will be dysregulated, have tantrums, be oppositional, and basically, drive the caregiver of that child up a wall with irritation, which in turn, can bring about a “Time Out,” which in and of itself is shaming as you are telling the child, “go away, as I can’t deal with you right now.” (try a TIME IN and sit with the child to help regulate them)

Now that I understand that shame is the helper that allows, reminds, and shows humans the way down the path to feeling guilt, I see shame as a more positive partner in living life.

Just a few more thoughts from my Gestalt training about shame:

Elementary School Teachers have the biggest influence on children ages 5 to 11 on how to deal with shame. Will a teacher use shame to help their students understand how to ‘be’ in relationship with the teacher and with school itself? Or will they use toxic shame to embarrass a student into compliance? I hope the first and not the later.

Peers have the next influence over adolescents and feelings of shame. Think Mean Girls for toxic shame and ways teens hurt each other with shame. It is devastating, sometimes, even deadly. How can we help teens learn kindness?

Adults deal with the idea of our own desirability. Am I attractive enough? Will my children act up and embarrass me? etc.

What kind of a teacher (as we all are teaching children by our actions), a teen peer ( as we all interact with teens in some way) and adult are we going to choose to be? Will you use shame to build relationships and to teach or use shame as a toxic weapon to bring others down to below a snakes belly?

It is up to you. (and that may have been a bit of some positive, relationship building shame thrown in for good measure)

Adoptee Lens – This is me, Janet Nordine, LMFT and adoptee, talking after spending many hours mulling this over.

  1. We were ALL born with the affect of shame, and it is NOT just the adopted person that feels shame. However, it seems like toxic shame from the moment we are born because we were removed, or removed very soon after birth.
  2. Adopted people feel shame the same as everyone else, however, adoptees internalize the affect due to “Our own mother not wanting me, therefore, I am unloveable,”
  3. We can be relational. We do not have to continue to shame ourselves due to our adoptions. The shame of being an adoptee is not our shame to wear as a scarlet S on our chest! We would have had this affect of shame even if we were KEPT CHILDREN!

For me, today during this learning, when I finally realized this bit of amazing scientific news, I was able to breath into my own shame of adoption and give it a hug and say, “I see you, and I accept you, even though, you feel toxic some days.”

3 thoughts on “Shame is NOT an Emotion

Add yours

  1. Please read my articles on under Robert Allan Hafetz. I am also an adoptee therapist and I am certain my ideas and interventions will resonate with you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shame. The scarlet letter for Adoptionland. We are shamed into losing our babies who then are full of shame for their mother not “ wanting “ them. Can their be adoption without shame ? I argue no. They go hand in hand and it is deadly toxic to many of us. The affects and effects of shame are on many of our lifetime path. It’s a viscous circle. Great post.


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