It’s common for persons involved in 12-step programs to seek professional help on occasion. The 12-step programs never claim to be, nor should they be, the end-all of recovery.

ShameAlthough an active member of my 12-step group, I decided to seek help in the form of therapy during a particularly trying time in my life. I was facing decisions I had never had to consider before and instinctively knew I would need help. During the course of that help, I came to realize the role Shame has had in my life. I never knew just how much of the shame I felt wasn’t even mine!

I was very fortunate to have a therapist who was fully versed in the family disease of alcoholism and knew exactly how to help me. Part of that help included hand-outs on various topics. I found this short exercise about Shame and wanted to share it with my readers. I post this with the utmost gratitude to the person who wrote it, although I don’t know who it is. My hope is that this might be recognizable to some who read it and will encourage them to investigate further.


Guidelines for resolving SHAME from the family of origin


Learn the difference between investigating the past and getting stuck in it.

The goal is to discover how events have damaged us so that we can change our current thoughts, feelings and actions.  We will feel pain and it is important to work through the hurt and not get stuck in it.

Try not to exaggerate events.  See if you can recall some times when your parents and siblings praised you, held you, and appreciated you.  Your shame must be kept in perspective.

Locate the most important deficiency messages you received from your family.

These messages are the ones that affected us most deeply.  They might feel correct when we say them to ourselves.  The messages are painful and they seem fixed forever.  Another cue that we are facing a deficiency message is when we feel small in the presence of the message as if we are weak and defenseless children.  Or we feel defective, ashamed or humiliated when we hear a message similar to one originally delivered by someone in our family.

It is helpful if we can remember specific incidents from your childhood that involved these deficiency messages.

Allow yourself to grieve the losses to your life that resulted from these messages.

Some losses can never be replaced.  No amount of praise or respect in adulthood can compensate for the lack of praise or respect received as a child.  That is why mourning is a necessary part of healing shame.  Mourn the parts of us that seemed to die in the face of rejection: the child who quit believing that she could do anything right; or the child who felt that the only way she could be accepted was to take care of others.

Challenge the old deficiency messages with new messages that reflect self-worth.

As adults, we can challenge the bad messages we received as children.  We may have had little choice about accepting these messages before, but we can replace them now with much healthier ones.

1.    Locate and study each specific shaming message

2.    Identify the person or persons who sent each message

3.    Challenge the idea that the message must be true because it came from a parent (or other person of importance to you)

4.    Consider the message and accept or reject it

5.    Substitute new, positive, non-shaming messages for the old, shaming ones.

Change your behavior so that it is consistent with these new, healthier messages:

Shame-based families tend to return to the old, shaming behaviors out of habit.  

Minimize contact with family members who cannot or will not quit shaming you.  You can set an agenda for discussion (“No, mother, we are not going to talk again about my divorce, that was over ten years ago.”).

If you want to be treated with respect by your family, you should remember that others are watching you for cues.  You must act toward yourself as you would want them to behave toward you.  It is useless to demand that family members quit calling you names if they hear you insulting yourself.  Nor will others learn how to praise you if you only comment on your faults.  We teach others how to treat us.

Return borrowed shame
Shame is contagious in shaming families.  It can easily pass from one family member to another, finally affecting everyone.  Shame is transferred from its rightful owner to more vulnerable people.  What it means is letting others take responsibility for their own behavior or feelings.

Key to healing:  recognizing when you are feeling shame about something that has nothing really to do with your actions but results from another family member’s behavior.  Tell yourself:  “Long ago, I took on some shame that didn’t belong to me.  I thought it was mine at the time, so did the rest of the family.  But now I know that I did nothing at the time that was wrong.  I am not guilty and I have nothing to feel ashamed about.”


May God help you in your quest.