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The Core of Shame

Updated: May 6, 2018

"At the core of chronic shame is an absence- the absence of connectedness (DeYoung, p.120).

Affective interactions between a child and caretaker shape the brain over a lifetime. When the primary caregiver is emotionally attuned and connected, the child feels understood and secure. When the caregiver has a pattern of being absent or intrusive, the child suffers what relational psychotherapist Patricia DeYoung refers to as "profound misattunement to their young affective/emotional selves" (DeYoung, 2015, p.34). In her book, Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach, the author explains that this disconnection between parent and child, when left unrepaired, leads to chronic shame (p.20). DeYoung's assertion differs from the commonly held belief that "a parent's intention to shame the child" (p.20) is the cause. She emphasizes the need for repair of the bond immediately following the misattunement. Therefore, in order for the child to recover from the inevitable experiences of misattunement in the parent-child relationship, the connection between them needs to be restored by the attuned caretaker. Otherwise, continuously unmet needs results in shameful feelings, which contribute to the relational pattern.

During moments of "dysregulation in relation to a dysregulating other" (p.29) "the self is in immediate (real or imagined) ruptured relation to another person" (p.29). The result is both a feeling of being bad for needing to be loved and the unbearable feeling of longing denied (p.12). Daniel Hill (2015), leading expert on the affect regulation model, writes: “shame may be understood to represent the sudden, painful collapse induced by unexpected, disapproving misattunement” (p.125). Therefore, shame begins within this nonverbal exchange of affects.

How is shame healed?

"Shame can be healed...if a person can be brought back into connection where empathy and emotional joining are possible” (DeYoung, p.18).

While our left brain wants to repair the "chronically dysregulated emotionally relational self" (DeYoung, p.60) by providing a logical understanding, what is called for is a right brain approach. Referring to the therapist and client relationship, DeYoung writes: "we have to be there, emotional self to emotional self, right brain to right brain" (p.73). The felt sense of attunement and connection is required for "shame reduction" (p.163) to take place. Therapists need to "share our own visceral understanding that a person's need for attunement is also her heartfelt longing to be seen, supported, known, and treasured" (DeYoung, p.56). An emotionally present approach has the potential to speak directly to the patient's right brain about shame.

Shame carries an emotional pain which is challenging to share, especially in a direct way (DeYoung, p.90). Taking care of the client's need for connectedness is taking care of the client's shame experience because it addresses the fragmentation that is caused by being disconnected from the original caretaker, and then carried into adulthood. Clients need to 'learn to do connection differently, not only with [the therapist], but also with the "real people" in their lives' (DeYoung, p.165). If shame is to heal, clients are in need of "an authentic reciprocal connection with others" (DeYoung, p.167).

To learn more about Patricia DeYoung’s views, listen to my Podcast with her.


DeYoung, Patricia. (2015). Understanding and treating shame: A relational/neurobiological approach. New York: Routledge.

Hill, D. (2015). Affect regulation theory: A clinical model. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.

Jordon, J. (1997). “Relational development: Therapeutic implications of empathy and shame” in Women’s growth and diversity: More writings from the Shame Center, ed. Judith Jordan. Guilford: New York.


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