From the moment we are born, our interactions with the world around us begin to shape our identity and our perception of ourselves. Among the myriad of emotions, we encounter in our formative years, shame is particularly potent, often embedding itself deep within the core of our being. For toddlers, who are at a stage of life where they are starting to define their sense of self and place in the world, experiences of shame can have profound and lasting effects.
As a toddler experiences shame, be it from a punitive parent, a teasing peer, or even from a personal failure, it doesn’t remain a mere memory. Rather, shame is held as a nonconscious emotional memory image (EMI) and sits inside the mind’s eye. The body then manifests in physical postures, facial expressions, and gestures. Literally showing the parents and caregivers their trauma. A child who is often shamed might develop a hunched posture, avoid eye contact, or habitually look down — all physical indications of a desire to hide or disappear. Such postures become the body’s automatic response to perceived threats or judgments, even long after the original source of shame is forgotten. The amnesia created by the presence of an EMI ensures that you will never consciously remember the event or seek help for the actual root of your problem.
These embodied postures, born out of early experiences of shame, rob an individual of their authenticity. Authenticity, in its essence, is the ability to be true to oneself, to present oneself genuinely and without pretence. But a body that has internalised shame is constantly on the defensive, always prepared to shield itself from further harm. This means that interactions become filtered through this lens of defensiveness and fear. Over time, you may find it challenging to access or even recognise your true feelings, desires, and needs, as they have been buried under layers of protective postures; all of which are hiding from an omnipresent EMI.
This loss of authenticity can impact all areas of life. Relationships may suffer, as true intimacy requires vulnerability and authenticity. Career opportunities might be missed, as you may shy away from situations that require assertiveness or self-presentation. Personal growth can be stunted, as you may avoid new experiences or challenges out of fear of further shame.
However, it’s crucial to note that while the body can internalise shame, it can also heal and relearn. When we remove or clear EMIs, we can start to recognise and challenge the embodied shame, rapidly replacing those protective postures with ones that reflect our true, authentic selves. We all need to understand the profound impact of first-time emotionally overwhelming experiences and the impact a negative EMI can have across our entire lifespan. This underscores the importance of nurturing positive, affirming environments for young children — laying the foundation for a life of authenticity and self-assuredness.