Shame and Socialization

Wittgenstein said, “The notion of following a rule is logically inseparable from making a mistake.”  I would like to make my own modification of that observation and say that it is “logically inseparable from being a mistake.”

When a child reaches the age of two or so, he suddenly becomes mature enough (neurologically and emotionally) to learn of a strange, curious, and often bewildering world “out there”.  He discovers that there is a myriad of rules, of “do’s and don’ts” that he has to subscribe to,  and on some level he really does not understand why this is necessary.  After all, he is doing just mighty fine already!  For example, why should he subscribe to what “they” call “potty training”?  Why hell, merely evacuating his bowels when the urge strikes appears to be working just fine!  If a need is frustrated, why shouldn’t he just throw a conniption fit?  After all, isn’t the world his oyster?  If he doesn’t like the morning gruel, why shouldn’t he just throw it across the kitchen?  And as for that cat’s tail, doesn’t it just beg to be pulled! And of course, any self respecting young male should be able to play with his wee-wee anytime he wants, even in church!

But, the child is hard-wired neurologically to decide that it is beneficial ultimately to subscribe to those rules being proffered by the “world out there” and to “join the human race”.  And most of us do, more or less.  But when we make this decision, it always involves saying good-bye to that delightful world of instinctual experience, where all of our needs were miraculously met by our mere whim, where we were the Lord and Master of our private little kingdom . We then have to “admit” on some deeply subjective, unconscious level that this private little kingdom of ours is “wrong” and that the world “out there” is right . That is tantamount to saying that we are wrong and they are right.  It is the advent of existential guilt.

But, if things go right, the “external world of rules” will be proffered by healthy family headed by mature parents who will gently escort the young tyke into this new kingdom.  He will learn that the advantages of “selling his soul” and joining the new world will outweigh the advantages of continuing to dwell in his private, autistic shell.

However, not all children are welcomed by kindly parents and a kindly world.  Sometimes the world is unforgiving and harsh if not brutal.  The child is shamed, humiliated, and physically brutalized into subscribing to the social mores.  And, many times this does suffice and the child will learn to comply but the price tag will be a core of shame that will haunt him the rest of his life.

I would like to share an excerpt from a D. H. Lawrence novel which so eloquently illustrates this shaming process and the devastation it can wreak on an innocent child.  In Lawrence’s novel, The Rainbow, Ursula is a little girl who is delighted with the new world she is discovering and is often totally consumed with its beauty and delight . This would often run her afoul of her unforgiving father who was very insensitive to her childish curiosity and would brutally scold her for trampling on his garden when all she had been doing was taking delight in a budding plant or daisy or chasing a butterfly.

But…her soul would almost start out of her body as her father turned on her, shouting:

Who’s been trampling and dancing across where I’ve just sowed seed? I know it’s you, nuisance! Can you find nowhere else to walk, but just over my seed beds? But it’s just like you, that is—no heed but to follow your own greedy nose.

The child was …shocked. Her vulnerable little soul was flayed and trampled. Why were the footprints there? She had not wanted to make them? She stood dazzled with pain and shame and unreality.

Her soul, her consciousness seemed to die away. She became shut off and senseless, a little fixed creature whose soul had gone hard and unresponsive. The sense of her own unreality hardened her like a frost. She cared no longer. And the sight of her face, shut and superior with self-asserting indifference, made a flame of rage go over him. He wanted to break her.

And there is more and more you might wish to read if this anecdote interests you.  Lawrence is very eloquent about describing the subjective experience of his characters, including children.

He concluded with, “And very early she learned to harden her soul in resistance and denial of all that was outside her, harden herself upon her own being.”

So often this anecdote from the Lawrence novel illustrates what happens with children.  Their parents do not have any sensitivity to the reality of children and are brutal in their correction of them.  Sure, children must be corrected, they must learn about social rules and propriety.  They must learn that there are consequences for various misbehaviors,  some of which do not even appear to be misbehavior.  But these consequences do not have to be issued with such brutality and heartlessness.  When this happens, often the child dies within, shame over whelms him, and at best he becomes a little shame-bound automaton compulsively complying with the rules handed down from the existing social order.


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