Also known as “imposter syndrome”, a Shame Attack is a feeling of deep retreat or even collapse after something positive has happened in your life. You may not feel worthy of recognition, have difficulty accepting compliments from others, or see yourself as always in the wrong. For example, let’s say you got recognized at work for an outstanding achievement, but instead of celebrating with friends, you spend the next few days in bed with the covers around you feeling bad about yourself for no clear reason.
Why does this happen? Positive Psychology, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Instagram wisdom will have you believe that it is because you have “distorted thoughts” and you simply need to “change your thinking” and you will feel better. Throw some affirmations on your mirror and you are good to go.
It is not that simple.
What is it?
When we grow up with a particularly wounded parent who tries to enmesh with us, our self-worth is measured through how much our parent approves of us or not. Usually this parent is not a steady and guiding force, but unpredictable in mood and approach, so it is a wild ride to navigate. Likewise, a parent who measures their worth through the achievement of their child is doing the child a great disservice simply by not seeing them for their immutable qualities beyond what the parent approves or disapproves of. If you are an adult who succeeds at work, calls your parent to share in the joy of success, and they say “Oh, I wish I could have done that with my life.” Or “Well- I never thought you would be so successful (with disdain).” You are probably someone who experiences Shame Attacks either through deep anxieties or deep collapses after positive events.
Shame attacks are the result of having parts of ourselves that are not “mirrored” accurately by our parent. If you have the unfortunate luck to grow up with a parent who is self- absorbed due to character traits, addiction, circumstances or even Narcissism, this is especially true. Parents who are self- absorbed cannot recognize the parts of their child that may be threatening or unfamiliar to them, because they must keep the child within their sphere of influence in order to feel emotionally safe themselves. These parents are not “bad”, they are hurting too and most probably grew up with parents who handled them the same way. It is important to recognize your parent’s role in this, not only to move beyond the mythology of protecting a “fragile” parent, but also to be able to accept, forgive and have an authentic and hopefully satisfying relationship with them. Remember that Accountability= Freedom. Don’t worry- holding your parent accountable does not mean you are blaming them. Although, be warned that if you have a self-absorbed parent who has not done their own healing work, they will probably protest violently when held accountable and will insist that you ARE blaming them! Self-absorbed parents will lash out, threaten use guilt to avoid what feels like blame, because it causes their own shame attack.
Here is how it begins:
Self Absorbed Parent: A child of 5 stomps their feet and shows anger and the SA parent says” What is wrong with you??! Shame on you! You have no reason to be angry! I am doing everything for you! You are ungrateful!”. The child learns (pretty immediately)- “Oh- there is something wrong with me for having this feeling and there is nothing wrong with what is happening to me, My parent could never be in the wrong.” And with enough of this scenario repeated, grows up to not be able to express anger, and perhaps internalize heathy, normal anger into depression, self-blame or even self- harm (behaviors like binge eating and comfort eating could fall into this category.) The child may grow up to confuse abuse for love by choosing self-absorbed or even abusive partners. Think about it, if you are trained to dismiss all of your internal cues that something bad is happening, you become blind to when something bad is actually happening in your relationship.
Secure Parent: A child of 5 stomps their feet and shows anger, and the parent says “Sweety! You are so angry! How can I help? Do you need to stomp your feet? Do you need to shake your arms? You are safe. I love you when you are angry. Let’s figure this out!” The child learns (pretty immediately) “Oh- this feeling is ok, and I am loved and welcomed even with this feeling. My feelings matter and my parent will help me feel better. I can trust myself.” This fortunate child grows up learning to express anger safely, and trusts that the situation is workable and resolvable, and even more importantly, to trust their own internal emotions to be valid.
What to do to heal:
A Shame Attack is a continual struggle for legitimacy with a parent who can never give it to you. This struggle can even happen with an internalized version of the parent that has become your own Inner Critic. But take heart-this does not mean it is hopeless at all! In fact, once you let go of the struggle with the disapproving parent, you can actually reassure yourself, receive accurate mirroring from safe friends or loved ones, and be freed from the attack. If you keep returning to the toxic parent, you unwittingly keep yourself stuck in the quicksand of their persistent disapproval. So hang up the phone, and keep your accomplishments to those who will celebrate and not denigrate you or feel threatened by your success.
Also, remember that it will take some time to reverse the injury, so make time for your Shame Attacks. As weird as it may feel- befriend them. They are parts of you that just needed love and instead got empty space, and maybe even disdain from the parent who should have welcomed them. Build them into your expectations. As you welcome them, they dissipate and you can begin to revel in your accomplishments and even feel worthy of them.