Being Controlled by Shame and Guilt

Thursday, May 29, 2014

In the last article I’ve talked about one of the mechanisms controllers use to manipulate people that is dragging others down. Another one is the attempt to trigger feelings of unjust shame and guilt in the person they want to control and manipulate.

If you have grown up in a controlling environment, the chances are high you are very familiar with this phenomenon, and you may be prone to it today or even use this mechanism on others yourself. How does it work?

When you are a small child, you need your parents’ acceptance to survive in this world. A child needs to feel that their primary caregiver accepts them, cares for them, and approves of their existence. If a parent says to a child – explicitly or implicitly – that the child is bad or somehow defective, the child feels shame and guilt, and at a fundamental level sees it as a risk to their bond with their caregiver (which means there is a potential threat to your survival and well-being). Also, because a child needs their caregiver to survive and in most cases is not allowed to express their true feelings, they often can’t accept that they may not be at fault or that others treat them unjustly.

A child internalizes their caregiver’s opinion of them. “If my mommy says I’m bad, then I’m bad.” “If they punish me for being naughty, then I deserve it because I’m naughty.” “They say that my sibling and my classmates are doing better than me – I must be bad and worth less than them.” Sometimes a similar message can be wrapped in a “nicer” package. “Be a nice little girl, honey.” “No, no, don’t cry – you want to be a brave and strong little man, don’t you?” “If you will be nice and listen to your parents, Santa’s going to give you this toy you want so much.”

Over time and though repetition, all of this becomes a twisted perception of yourself. “I’m worthless.” “I’m a defective human being.” “I can’t be myself, because people will reject me.” “I’m bad.” “I deserve punishment.” “I’m unlovable.” “I don’t deserve to exist.” “I am fundamentally worth less than others.” “I don’t deserve happiness.” “I only deserve this.” “I constantly have to prove myself.” “I’m not enough; this is not enough.” “I can’t be myself.” “My feelings, needs, and preferences don’t matter or are worth less than others’.” “My feelings and perceptions are incorrect.” “I have to do what others tell me to do.” “I have to perform for others’ approval.” “I have to compare myself to others.” “I can’t make mistakes.” “I don’t trust myself and don’t know what to do if nobody is telling me what to do.” “I'm selfish for taking care of myself.” Et cetera….

As you probably know, this leads to numerous difficulties in your adult live. If you haven’t processed the psychological dynamics of your childhood environment, you may tend to unconsciously recreate the same dynamics in your adult relationships (especially in romantic relationships), or continue playing the same unhealthy role in your relationship with your family members.

A person who grew up in a controlling environment where they felt chronic fear, shame, and guilt can be very susceptible to triggers of shame and guilt in their adult life. When triggered, they often react by using the same survival mechanisms they have developed as helpless children: obey, don’t be yourself, manage others’ feelings, withdraw, hide, be “nice,” accept what’s happening, accept blame for everything, fix things, and so on….

Instead of processing the situation as it really is, the triggered adult mentally and even physically goes back to their early environment and feels the same way they felt back then. Because it lasted for such a long time and there was no true separation period from it, the mind and the body react to it in the same way: there is a danger to my survival, and this is how you protect yourself. At those moments you don’t feel that you’re an adult and nobody can harm you if you don’t act a certain way – you feel like a small, helpless, scared, and hurt child you once were.

But you were not the one at blame. As a child you did nothing wrong. You have – and always had – the moral right to feel anger, rage, betrayal, fear, and hurt for the unjust treatment you have suffered. Right now the situation is very different because you are not a helpless child anymore. You have the right to exist, to feel what you feel, to take care of yourself, to do what you want without feeling guilty or ashamed, and to pursue your happiness.

Keep in mind that even after consciously realizing it the symptoms may be still prevailing for you – because it is so engrained, and was so significant, and it is very complex. This is a normal reaction to what you have been through. Try not to blame yourself for “not being there yet.” It takes a huge amount of time, work, inner strength, courage, and introspection to truly reclaim your self-esteem and develop psychological independence. But it’s possible, each step towards it is worth it, and you are definitely worth it.

Have a self-loving day,

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