NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Overcoming Shame: Disengaged Families

In my prior post, I discussed Overcome Shame: Enmeshed Families. I'd like to discuss shame in predominantly disengaged families in this post.

Families are complex, so even though I'm describing various "types" of families and categorizing them as "enmeshed" or "disengaged" for the sake of simplicity, we know that people and families are not so easily boxed into particular categories. 

However, for the purpose of our discussion, I will use these categories to show how certain types of families where there is a predominance of a particular way of interacting, in this case "disengaged," often create shame in family members.

Disengaged Families

Overcoming Shame: Disengaged Families

Whereas, in general, enmeshed families discourage personal boundaries, disengaged families tend to be cold and distant with each other. 

Children often feel lonely and isolated. Often, family members lead very separate lives and there is little feeling of emotional connection. 

They might all be in the same house, but it is as if they are each alone. Maybe they eat meals separately. 

Conversation might be limited to impersonal topics like the weather or politics. There is little feeling of nurturance. In disengaged families parents often lack emotional attunement with their children. What does this mean? Here is an example of lack of emotional attunement:

I was on a train a few weeks ago and sitting across from me was a mother and a baby boy of about six or seven months in a stroller. The boy began asking his mother for his "binkie" (his pacifier). The mother appeared tired and depressed and she had a thousand mile stare. 
She seemed not to notice or hear her son talking to her. 

At first, he asked calmly, but as time passed and he got no response from her, he began to cry in frustration, saying, "Binkie. Binkie" over and over again. With no response forthcoming from his mother, the boy got increasingly upset and cried louder and louder as tears streamed down his face. He cried louder and louder, asked for the "binkie," banging his hand on the stroller, trying to get his mother's attention in any way that he could. 

This went on for about 10 long minutes. It was quite heart breaking to see. Finally, the boy's mother seemed to come back from wherever her far away thoughts had taken her and absentmindedly gave the boy the pacifier without even looking at him. Even after he got the pacifier, he looked very sad and ashamed because he could not get his mother's attention. Eventually, he went to sleep, looking exhausted, with his eyes still wet from his tears, sucking on his pacifier.

One could only hope that this was an isolated incident and that this was not their usual way of relating. If his mother is usually emotionally attuned to this boy and he experiences only occasional incidents like this, all other things being equal, he will probably grow up to be well adjusted because emotional attunement doesn't need to be perfect--it just needs to be "good enough" most of the time. 

As humans, we are emotionally resilient so that isolated incidents are not permanently scarring. Or, if the primary caregiver lacks attunement, but there are other relatives who are around a lot who are loving and pay attention to this boy in a loving way, this can mitigate the damage of a disengaged primary caregiver. 

However, if this is how this mother usually relates most of the time, possibly due to her own depression or because she had no one to nurture her when she was growing up, and there is no one else in the picture to make up for it, her emotional disengagement can cause this boy to feel lonely and ashamed of his own need for emotional connection and love.

Shame at an Early Age:
You might be surprised to read that babies can feel shame, but they do. They don't have the cognitive capacity or linguistic skills to express it in words, but you can see it clearly if you watch. 

There has also been a lot of infant research that has shown that babies are capable of feeling shame when their emotional needs are not met. So, shame can start at a very early age. 

When shame starts at such an early age, it often becomes a primary emotion for these people. They often grow up feeling lonely, shy and that they don't deserve to be loved. 

Their own emotional withdrawal, in turn, makes it difficult for them to connect with others, which perpetuates the loneliness and shame. 

Of course, many unforeseen things can happen in a lifetime and these people might meet others who are able to reach beyond the withdrawal and isolation to form important emotional bonds. So, all is not hopeless. But growing up in a family where there is emotional disengagement presents emotional challenges for the individuals in this family with shame being one of the primary challenges.

What to Do:
If you grew up in a family where you felt ashamed of your basic need for love and emotional connection, it may be very hard to ask for help. 

As I mentioned in the prior post, I recommend reading John Bradshaw's books ( about families and shame so that you can gain a better understanding of how shame might be impacting you in your life and realize that you're not alone. 

The feeling of shame can be so ingrained that you don't expect that your life can change. However, many people have been helped to overcome these feelings by psychotherapists who understand how to work with individuals who grew up feeling ashamed of their basic need for love and nurturance.

Although you might not feel it right now, you deserve to have an emotionally fulfilling life. Taking the first step might be the hardest, but it can also be the most important step in overcoming a life of shame and emotional deprivation.

About Me
I am a licensed New York psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist and coach. 

I have helped many individual adults and couples to overcome feelings of shame and emotional deprivation.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also, see my article:  Overcoming Shame