Family Works

‘Shame on you’

Rob Coombs ID. Min. Ph.D.
Posted 5/28/17

“Shame on you.”

Words that echo in my distant memory.

Words spoken often by my mother in my early childhood. Words that had a hurtful impact on how I felt about myself. Words that made me …

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Family Works

‘Shame on you’


“Shame on you.”

Words that echo in my distant memory.

Words spoken often by my mother in my early childhood. Words that had a hurtful impact on how I felt about myself. Words that made me feel unworthy and uncertain. Words that left me feeling powerless and empty.

Most times I wasn’t sure what I had done that necessitated my needing to feel ashamed. I just knew that somehow, someway, whatever I had done wasn’t good enough. Over time, it was easy to feel that I just wasn’t good enough.

Shame is about a lack of acceptance — both what you do and who you are. For some families, it seems that nothing their children ever do is good enough. There is always something wrong, something to feel ashamed about. In such families, the focus is usually upon what a person does rather than who the person is. Perhaps John Bradshaw expressed it best when he said that by constantly measuring people by what they do instead of who they are, we turn “human beings into human doings.”

So much focus on what a child does causes the child to internalize the basic belief that he is what he does and that he better do it right if he is to receive acceptance. This results in emotional blackmail where the child is likely to strive to get it right only to face the inevitable reality that no matter what he does, there is always something wrong. The underlying message is that mistakes are not acceptable. Acceptance comes from doing things right.

There are several possible outcomes for children who grow up in such environments. Eventually, some children accept that they are failures — both in what they do and who they are. This often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that encourages and propels continued failure. The individual becomes failure-prone because failure is what he knows best. Other children repeatedly strive to get it right.

These children may string together an incredible list of accomplishments, accomplishments that should make any parent proud. They may become stellar students by high school, acquire multiple degrees, win the respect of a wide community of people and, yet, continue to feel grossly inadequate within, knowing all too well that no matter what they accomplish it will never be good enough.

Still others eventually turn to some sort of addiction. Whether the addiction is expressed through drugs, food, sex or whatever, the drive behind the addiction is always the same. The addiction is a vain attempt to numb the pain, the pain of never, ever being good enough.

Why do parents begin this destructive cycle? Some parents or guardians honestly believe that if they do not point out areas of needed improvement, the child will stop trying. The logic is that the child will continue to learn to do better only if his inadequacies are pointed out. Shame, therefore, encourages the child to perform at a high level.

Often, this is true. But accomplishment driven by never feeling good as a person simply isn’t worth the emotional price tag, since no matter what is accomplished, the individual continues to feel basically worthless.

Through encouragement and affirmation, children also can come to believe in their unconditional worth as human beings. Out of such feelings can also flow wonderful accomplishments. Although the end result may be the same for the person who accomplishes the same achievements fueled by shame, the individual feels good not only about what he has done, but also who he is.

“Shame on you.” Such shameful, unnecessary, destructive words.

Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.


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