Shame is something that comes up often in my work as a therapist and particularly with clients whose lives are impacted by adoption. It is a fairly consistent backdrop to many of the problems that people seek counselling for. I know both personally and professionally that the experience of adoption and feelings of shame are often intertwined. Shame can be a significant and disempowering experience for every member of the adoption circle, parents and children alike. When feelings of shame are internalized as a part of one’s identity, lifelong patterns of dysfunction and emotional distress easily follow. In the lives of adopted children, shame almost always has a very personal and tangible presence.  To understand why this is so, it helps to understand shame and the function it serves.

Take a moment to recall a moment in your life when you felt shamed or ashamed. Tune in to your body for a moment. What do you notice? Most people feel a visceral response, literally feeling that they want to shrink or curl into themselves, hide from and avoid the gaze of others. You may also notice a variety of unpleasant sensations like a flush of heat or redness on your skin, prickling or painful sensations, nausea. In fact, shame causes a flood of stress hormones and a variety of other biochemical reactions in our bodies, none of which feel positive, nourishing or empowering. Let’s also consider the emotional and psychological impact of shame. What are your thoughts and emotions as you recall that shame filled memory? My guess is that there is nothing there that you would like to experience again. And that is exactly the purpose of healthy shame: it effectively teaches and enforce the rules of our social group.   

Shame has this very important function and works very well because feelings of shame are hard to ignore, and affect us very deeply. Shame experiences are repaired when we once again feel a sense of belonging: feel forgiven, fix our wrongdoing, don’t repeat the same mistake and are accepted back as a member of our social group in good standing. However, shame becomes toxic when a shame experience cannot be repaired.

The Free Dictionary defines shame as  “A painful emotion caused by the belief that one is, or is perceived by others, to be inferior or unworthy of affection or respect because of one’s actions, thoughts, circumstances or experiences.”  Shame can be invoked just by feeling different or unworthy based on circumstances or experiences. All adopted and fostered kids live with an early, and often repeated experience of rejection or disconnection from their nuclear family. No matter how you reason with it, that is a deeply shaming experience and one that can precipitate developing a core belief about a personal lack of worthiness, a lack of rights to affection and respect. Children don’t have the resources to understand or defend themselves from feelings of shame that result from being set apart from the people who created them. Adopted children almost always internalize a sense of being different, of something being unacceptable, wrong or unlovable about them. Parents can help their children revise unhelpful core beliefs by being open to exploring their child’s feelings, reactions and bodily sensations in a gentle, curious and supportive way.

According to research, adopted children are most likely to encounter experiences of shaming (related to their adoptive status) from extended family members, neighbours, friends, school mates and others in the community, not from within their nuclear family. Shame producing experiences are often not intentional, but are particularly damaging if maliciously intended.

The “shame problem” for adopted kids and for adopted parents too, is that there is no way to “repair” or “fix” their circumstances and experience of being a non-normative family. It is a tough task to alter the perceptions of the outside world, and to change its attitudes. Education is key but more importantly, changing beliefs.

Deep-seated feelings of shame are a persistent and difficult part of adoption experience. The only antidote to toxic shame is to find ways to repair the damage. The big picture includes education to slowly shift social norms. Our role as parents on the front lines offers a more direct and profound solution to solving the shame problem. We have repeated opportunities to listen, observe and help repair the feelings and experiences of shame that live in the hearts and minds of our children. For more information about healing toxic shame please visit my website or contact me.