4 Characteristics of Shame-Based Families Explained

Shame-based families are a huge challenge to one’s personal development, cultivating feelings of inadequacy, isolation, helplessness, and worthlessness in vulnerable individuals. This type of upbringing is extremely toxic and can taint people’s mindsets even across generations.

How do you identify shame-based families?

Shame-based families can be characterized by the exhibition of these traits:

  1. Too Much Control
  2. Poor Openness and Interpersonal Communication
  3. Dependence of Self Esteem on Family Approval
  4. Selective Personal Accountability

Shame-dominated thoughts and upbringing can be managed with patience, improved personal accountability, acceptance, professional care, and compassion. More specific examples to apply such solutions can be found below.

It can be challenging to navigate shame-based families, especially when one comes from relatively limited exposure to other types of family structures. We’ve compiled a short list of traits to watch out for, so be mindful of warning signs as they crop up.

Too Much Control

mom scolding her child

Control is a common characteristic found within shame-based families, which is often monopolized by authority figures in the family. For the sake of this article, we’ll be making use of two general categories within shame-based families: perpetrators and dependents.

Perpetrators are individuals with power and influence, and often – but not always – sit in providing roles for the family. Their provision could either be through financial or emotional means (e.g., approval). Most perpetrators exhibit narcissistic tendencies and meet them through exerting power over others in the family.

Dependents are, as the name suggests, dependent on the former. They need to comply with decisions and revisions made, regardless of personal feelings, and this exposure compromises their self-worth and personal expectations. Such upbringing can be difficult to overcome.

This control extends to not only privileges and rights, but even the narratives entirely!

For instance, if you got injured by an authority figure within a shame-based family, that incident could be spun in a few different ways:

  1. They could decide that you were injured in an accident and would end up coercing your compliance under threat of being removed from the family by Child Protective Services.
  2. They could decide that you acted out in a way justifying the response (“Your choices brought this on!”), pushing the victim towards unwarranted feelings of guilt and shame.
  3. They could talk down to you for acting impulsively (“You’re too young to know better than me!”), leveraging their authority in a way that undermines the victim’s confidence.

Here, the people perpetrating these actions may never be wrong. They will reframe, rewrite, or disregard any incidents that contradict their controlled narrative.

They will also place pressure on the victimized party into accepting their revised account of events. Such pressure can be placed through direct (e.g., threats of harm) or indirect (e.g., gaslighting) means, coercing their dependent party into compliance.

This type of control is often rigid and non-negotiable, criminalizing alternative opinions through overt condemnation (“How dare you be so disrespectful!”) or insidious guilt-slinging (“It’s your fault I feel horrible!”). Blame is a plentiful commodity in these families.

This blanket of control extends to not only difficult situations, but even day-to-day interactions, personal ambitions, current emotional states, and even general behavior. What constitutes “problematic” is decided by the judgement of authority figures in the family, with no grounds to argue or even explain the reasoning behind one’s protest.

In another example, imagine contesting your guardian figure’s claims or concerns. How would they respond? Would they take your input into account, or simply disregard it outright?

Shame-based families would fixate on controlling dissent, no matter how well-reasoned, on principle alone. You aren’t allowed to disagree, because disagreeing is inherently disrespectful in their eyes – to be penalized with contempt, shame, or even violence in some tragic cases. 

How to Check:

Can you disagree with your family’s guardian figures? Do they meet your concerns on a respectful level, or do they overrule your inputs entirely?

Poor Openness and Interpersonal Communication

teenager getting ignored by her mom

Shame-based families are also characterized by poor interpersonal communication skills and shoddy emotional support structures. Dependents exist primarily to enable the perpetrator’s ego and narcissism, often at the cost of great personal duress and psychological damage.

Dependents often have their vulnerabilities and triggers exploited into attack vectors to leverage control, and subsequently end up discouraged from exercising emotional openness.

They end up being expected to work towards becoming an idealized image of themselves that is almost always impossible to meet. Even if they do meet it, other reasons for disappointment can be manufactured to keep the individual from self-actualizing.

Shame-based environments don’t allow individuals to process negative emotions with family support. Empathy is extremely low, and most problems of this nature are met with shame, condemnation, or even abuse (physical or emotional) until the dependent is forced into silence.

Simply put, you aren’t allowed to disagree. You aren’t even allowed to feel sad – some authority figures may interpret negative emotions as a means to undermine their authority and will do everything in their power to gaslight individuals into self-destructive silence. 

You aren’t permitted to express opinions that aren’t conducive to the current consensus, no matter how politely you phrase it. The objective meaning is moot – the critique and condemnation fall on the principle of disagreement rather than the intent of the message.

Even if other members of the family share the sentiment, these tend to be expressed in defensive ways to avoid incurring consequences from others. Support is scarce in these environments.

One of the worst parts of this problem is how easily it ends up with complicit dependents. They end up subsuming these values and expectations, and rather than admit to their own lack of power rely on the meager dominion granted by backing up the unreasonable system in place.

It’s common to hear sentiments like “It’s your fault you upset dad!” or “Why couldn’t you just accept mom’s suggestions”. It can get disconcerting when it comes from other people victimized by the shame-based family structure and encourages subservience in terrifyingly-discrete ways.

How to Check:

Can you talk about your feelings and point of view with other people in your family? Will these sentiments be held against you?

If you disagree with someone openly, how many people in the family push back? Do they disagree with you for the sake of conformity (“Stop arguing!”) or do they actively engage your concerns?

Dependence of Self-Esteem on Family Approval

Unfortunately, this emotional fulfillment is brought by moving goalposts. If expectations are unmet on the dependent’s side, it becomes a matter of inadequacy on their part.

If expectations are unmet on the perpetrator’s side, there are a myriad of justifications at their disposal. Most involve blaming the dependent in some form, keeping them pliant and afraid. Unwarranted anger and disproportionate responses can always be justified in their eyes.

Labels are a common tool used to perpetuate this toxic culture.

For example, a child that did poorly academically can be labeled as a failure through different means. “You are my son!” connotates higher expectations they failed to deliver on, while “You are an idiot!” shatters self-esteem and perpetuates the dependent’s own feelings of inadequacy.

Labels constrain people, pushing them to operate either towards or away from them. Progress is done to avoid failing, rather than towards self-betterment. The main motivation is not to be perceived as a failure in the family, rather than achieving their own goals for personal growth.

These labels also inhibit self-actualization opportunities, as most of these call for growth that goes beyond the acceptable scope for people within shame-based families. Their approval only comes when you conform to their ideal values, and even this is liable to change on a whim.

Encouragement is generally limited in quantity, with the few instances of it being used serving as a tool to facilitate animosity between people (“You were always the disappointing child!”). This ends up manufacturing interpersonal struggles in the family, hampering family harmony.

How to Check:

How does your family respond to hearing about your success? How do they respond to your failings?

If people in your family make mistakes, how do the others respond? Is there any disparity in the treatment of similar problems between different people in the family?

Selective Personal Accountability

Narcissism and selective personal accountability go hand-in-hand, and the rules applying to them are much more negotiable than the standards they hold others to.

Imagine this hypothetical situation: You raised a hand against your sibling after they hit you, and your guardian figure chastised you for this. You disagreed with them, and in the heat of the moment, they struck you in kind – ostensibly for disrespect.

You acting in such a violent manner warrants discipline, but them acting in similar ways is a means for discipline. While there isn’t a disparity in actions, the framework they use to operationalize it will find a way to justify their actions while condemning you for similar behavior.

They need to be right, so someone else must be wrong. Blame is something they monopolize, along with criticism and shame. It’s an unfair system shame-based families will enable, with not only perpetrators of it but even other dependents being complicit in the unhealthy cycle.

Emotionally-healthy families would emphasize fair terms concerning accountability. Everyone is just as liable for their actions no matter their position and should be held to similar standards. The absence of this equality is a huge red flag one must be mindful of.

Sometimes, parents do hit their children – but they spend much more time making amends for their lapse than shame-based families would. Equal accountability is a key facet of healthy families.

While parents can’t always punish themselves the same way they’d punish their children, there’s still a good deal of emphasis placed on their response. They need to accept their guilt and explain their mistake responsibly, rather than ignore it for the sake of their personal pride.

How to Check:

Are the punishments in your household tailored to the mistakes or the individuals making them? Is there a notable disparity? Do you think labels or expectations come into play?

Why Do You Need to Overcome This?

depressed man sitting on a bed

Shame-based families are characterized by many problematic traits but are unfortunately tolerated because people tend to underestimate the extent of their impact.

Most people believe that shame-based families are just a facet of difficult childhoods, and can be shed once victims extricate themselves from that environment.

In truth, most people can’t do that outside of cutting family ties entirely. Shame-based families perpetuate shame-based upbringing, and this isn’t just an unfortunate situation but active conditioning that can get others caught in the crossfire.

Shame-based upbringing pushes people to accept similar treatment even into adulthood. It causes poor self-worth and unmet developmental needs, inhibiting one’s emotional capabilities. In some cases, it can even lead to victims perpetuating the abusive situations they suffered in the past.

Shame-based families are a toxic culture perpetuated across generations that needs to be handled urgently and decisively. It’s not something to be outgrown, but trauma to be mourned, processed, and eventually overcome.

Solution 1: Allow Yourself To Grieve

While it might sound counterintuitive for people at risk of spiraling, grieving allows for the opportunity to purge negative sentiments in a safe manner. It provides an avenue for catharsis and emotional openness, doing away with the notion that such behavior would lead to punishment.

It’s okay to grieve your difficult childhood. It’s okay to feel bad about being silenced. Acknowledging the problem allows it to be drawn out and managed with your full capabilities.

Solution 2: Shed Those Labels

People are more than the sum of their actions, and shame-based families will do their very best to curtail that realization. Labels are leverage, not one’s identity.

This especially extends to labels that bleed into family animosity. Your siblings shouldn’t be viewed as better or worse than yourself, for instance.

View them – and yourself – as people, first and foremost. It can take time, but one needs to reclaim their own identity before beginning to build it back up.

Solution 3: Take Accountability (After Deep Reflection)

There’s a huge difference between blame and accountability. Blame is oftentimes selective, but equal accountability applies to all actions. Think about the moments you might have been complicit in making someone you care about feel worse about themselves.

This step allows you to approach situations with greater responsibility and is pivotal to ensuring you don’t perpetuate this type of selective, problematic family culture. Be mindful about your actions to ensure this type of toxic shame ends with your generation.

It’s not about taking blame for all your actions, nor is it about shedding all responsibility due to past trauma. Discernment is sorely needed here. You want to accept and atone for your own wrongdoings, but also recognize when certain situations were out of your control. Finding a good balance here is crucial, and the next step below can greatly aid that endeavor.

Solution 4: Seek Professional Aid

couple therapy

Shame-based upbringing’s influence can last for years, and the practices within are usually inherited from one or both parents’ experiences. This is generational trauma enabled over very long periods, and more than warrants professional attention to thoroughly process.

There’s no issue in needing help to unpack what you’ve been through. It can take months or even years to process your experiences – even longer to make peace with these revelations. This might be necessary if you happen to be surrounded by others perpetuating this type of culture.

Final Thoughts

Shame-based families make for not only difficult childhoods but hampered adulthood, and identifying the problem is the first step toward discerning solutions. It’s important to accept the disparity in standards to avoid being gaslit by narcissistic individuals and even other victims.

Prepare yourself to process this trauma, then take the time you need to accept what you need to address. Some professional help may be needed, but if you understand how you were wronged and what must be done to overcome this, you can end this cycle of shame.

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