“The goal of socialization is to stimulate the child to try and live in harmony with the rest of the world. In order to do this, undesirable behavior needs to be restrained and discouraged as much as possible. The designated tool of persuasion for giving up pleasure for an undesirable act, is the powerful emotion of shame.
The shaming experience helps to pop the bubble of the toddler’s infantile form of narcissism: the “omnipotent” toddler-version of a self-indulgent and relatively recklessly exploratory bravado-attitude (see Fig.1) that seems to correspond most closely with Freud’s idea of the ID. Since unmitigated shame may result in lasting psychological damage however, it is of the utmost importance that the wound be inflicted gently.
After the mother has shamed the child, a soothing follow-up response (“soft-looks, warm touches and kind words”) is necessary in order to help the toddler deal with his shaming experience in a healthy manner. The cycle: initial elation for doing something that is considered bad, followed by the mother socializing the child through shaming and the ensuing recovery — constitutes a positive learning experience which fosters the development of a healthy Self.
This recovery part is crucial for the toddler to learn that hurt feelings can be mended again and that the caregiver can be trusted. Emotionally, the young child needs compassionate help in managing emotions and protection from overwhelming feelings until his brain matures sufficiently for him to be able to do this on his own. Small doses of shame followed by soothing, help the child gently and responsibly deflate his infantile narcissism towards the development of a more realistic sense of Self. As he progresses through the practicing period, the toddler becomes more and more independent from the caregiving mother. This is called the separation-individuation process.
In the words of Hotchkiss:
‘The first two or three years of life are the age of narcissism when the child’s underdeveloped Self and lack of awareness of the otherness of others are normal. Grandiosity, omnipotence, magical thinking, shame-sensitivity, and a lack of interpersonal boundaries come with the package. We are meant to outgrow this stage, but we need the help of parents who can tolerate and love us while we get through to the other side. We need them to hold the boundaries that we don’t yet see, to recognize who we really are and can be, to help us manage shame and contain rage, and to teach us to live in a world of others. When that doesn’t happen, we can become stuck in childhood narcissism. Failure to complete the separation-individuation process is what leads to a narcissistic personality.’ (Hotchkiss; p. 45)
When a child has been shamed but lacks a loving and forgiving follow-up, it is left with a festering psychological wound. The failure to mitigate shame leaves the toddler inclined to interpret the behavior as being unforgivably shameful. This may be traumatic for the child–the first narcissistic injury if you will, and lack of mitigation reinforces the immoral severity of the shameful act. Although it should be understood that the experienced degree of the trauma also depends on the capacity of the child to sustain disciplinary action. If the child has a rather fragile and vulnerable psyche then it is only reasonable to expect that the impact of the trauma is more severe than a child who possesses a more robust psychological constitution. In the former case the soothing part is more important than with the latter.
The toddler registers the emotionality of the shaming mother — shaming facial expression, agitated voice and embarrassed mannerisms — deep into his memory through his senses. I suspect that this perception of a shaming caregiver (or caregivers) gives rise to the formation of a sort of internally projected mental presence of the shaming parent; one that is reinforced with every recurrence of an unsoothed shaming experience. Call it the emergence of the shaming inner parent if you will.
Hotchkiss also suggests at the coming into existence of such inner authoritarian presence:
‘The child’s normal narcissistic rages, which intensify during the power struggles of age eighteen to thirty months — those ‘terrible twos’– require ‘optimal frustration’ that is neither overly humiliating nor threatening to the child’s emerging sense of Self. When children encounter instead a rageful, contemptuous, or teasing parent during these moments of intense arousal, the image of the parent’s face is stored in the developing brain and called up at times of future stress to whip them into an aggressive frenzy. Furthermore, the failure of parental attunement during this crucial phase can interfere with the development of brain functions that inhibit aggressive behavior, leaving children with lifelong difficulties controlling aggressive impulses.’ (Hotchkiss; p.21)
Indeed, one should not forget that our learning potential crucially relies on our ability to mimic. By virtue of imitating our parents, and later our peers, we absorb the cultural environment around us like a proverbial sponge. One might call this process, that never needn’t be complete, adaptation to the local cultural climate. More than our self-reliance craving egos perhaps like to admit, our lives — especially our childhoods, when the need and potential for learning is the greatest — revolve around the activity of copying each-other activities, behavior and later opinions. In general, the propagation of culture would be impossible if it weren’t for the existence of our faculty of mimicry, which in turn relies on a strong innate capacity to, in great detail, register and assimilate sensory expressions of other people; facial expressions of our parents at first, and vocal chord sounds later on when our minds have developed sufficiently to enable us to learn our native tongue. Indeed, it would be impossible to learn something as profoundly elementary as language without our faculty of mimicry, which vitally relies on a capacity to accurately duplicate the speech sounds made by the people in our environment in general and our parents in particular. To put it succinctly and generally, we are beings of imitation.
Referring to the apparent shamelessness of the narcissist, Hotchkiss comments:
‘More typically, the shamelessness of the Narcissist comes across as cool indifference or even amorality. We sense that these people are emotionally shallow, and we may think of them as thick-skinned, sure of themselves, and aloof. Then, all of a sudden, they may surprise us by reacting to some minor incident or social slight. When shaming sneaks past the barriers, these ‘shameless’ ones are unmasked for what they really are – supremely shame-sensitive. That is when we see a flash of hurt, usually followed by rage and blame. When the stink of shame has penetrated their walls, they fumigate with a vengeance.’ (Hotchkiss; p. 6)” (1)