Breaking the cycle of shame-based families

Shame shows up in many ways and it usually starts at home. These shame-based interactions affect a child’s development, sense of self and the ability to become a successful participant in the community and world at large. It’s the wall that stops you from taking risks and making mistakes. It’s the voice in your head that brings doubt, self-criticism, and self-abandonment. It’s the weight that has been carried from past experiences tainting your potential and possibility in the now.

I’d like you to take a moment to think of a time where you were being shamed by someone in your family? Ask yourself: how that memory feels in the body? What stories come up? How was this message delivered? Looking back, was it really your shame? Or was it theirs? It’s important to be gentle with yourself and remember that, in shame-based families parents dump their shame onto their children so they don’t have to feel or deal with it.

I’ve had clients that, no matter what, any chore they did was never done good enough to the unrealistic standards of the parent. They were shamed, criticized and nagged. Most importantly there was no teaching, guidance or support to improve. This left my clients feeling anxious and defeated.Later on, when it came time to run their own household, they developed learned helplessness.

When we work together they are able to experience a non-judgemental and supportive relationship allowing them to release the shame and gain the confidence and skills they need. The traumatic experience stopped them from approaching or even noticing that they needed to address their physical spaces. Now they are able to stand in their power and embrace new skills and live in clean, organized homes they feel comfortable and proud in. 🙂

Five characteristics of shame-based family systems

There are over 10 different characteristics of shame-based family systems. In Lori Herberts article, she provides a very extensive look at four, while Paul Dunion gives a wide scope of the different components of shame-based families along with great case examples. I recommend checking out both articles.

  1. Too Much Control

The need to control everything is the most dominant characteristic of a shame-based family. These types of families usually consist of two roles: the perpetrator and dependent.


  • Exert power, control and influence through financial & emotional means

  • Only cares about themselves and are not empathetic

  • They want to dominate and there is no space for others to exist freely

  • Privileges and rights are dictated rather than negotiated

  • Name calling is used to keep others down


  • Relies on the perpetrator for approval

  • Gets stuck in extreme people pleasing and looses connection with their own needs and feelings

  • Their self-worth is deeply affected

  • Feels unsafe and the need to walk on eggshells

Examples of what you might hear:

  • “You’re too young to know any better”

  • “It’s your fault for making that choice”

  • “How dare you….”

  • “It’s your fault I feel this way”

  • “It’s my way or the highway”

This kind of gaslighting, control and psychological mind warping causes the dependent to second guess their actions. In order to survive, they create inaccurate narratives that match the narratives of the perpetrator. Overall, this control means that you can never disagree with the perpetrator and if you do there are severe consequences. So you learn to mold yourself into a pretzel to stay safe.

2. Poor Openness and Interpersonal Communication

Communication in shame-based families usually consists of the silent treatment, yelling, interrupting, teasing, nagging, name-calling and good old sarcasm. This is coupled with little or no emotional support, lacking the ability to coregulate and attune to others feelings, in other words no empathy. When seen in a vulnerable state, the perpetrator will take advantage of this and belittle the dependent into feeling even more shame. It makes it almost impossible to be authentic and express one’s emotions causing family members to be silenced “or else”.

This dynamic also creates a need to be perfect and meet the ever changing ideal set by the perpetrator. There is always something wrong, so this ideal can never be met; the dependent is always in fear mode. It also means that an individual does not have the skills, support or space to process negative emotions. If these negative emotions are shown then the perpetrator sees this as undermining their authority and the dependent is shamed into silence.

Shaming communication often looks like putting blame onto others. This creates a web of deflecting, gas-lighting, lack of accountability and at the end of the day everyone feels horrible. Maybe growing up you heard things like:

  • “Don’t tell your father!”

  • “Why didn’t you do what he said?”

  • “It’s your fault your mother is upset.”

  • “You’re overreacting!”

You probably felt like everything was your fault and still do. It’s likely you are afraid that even the cashier at the grocery store is mad at you when they are having a tough day. To be afraid all the time is exhausting and prevents you from living from a place of peace and power, which is exactly what the perpetrator wants.

3. Self-esteem depends on the family’s approval

Nothing is ever good enough, no matter how hard you try, no matter what you accomplish, there is criticism and personal jabs. Instead of wanting to create and grow as an individual you focus all your energy on either avoiding failure or covering up perceived failure. This can look like not making life choices you want because they counter the families ideals and values.

These patterns continue into adulthood with relationships outside of the nuclear family. Whether it’s with your kids, friends, colleagues or romantic partners, you always feel the need to have their approval instead of standing in a strong sense of yourself, values and essence. It also means that people sense this low self-esteem and you are easily taken advantage of. If I know you want to please me I’ll see what I can get from it. And likely these individuals are perpetrators just like those in your family of origin.

As you gain some freedom in adulthood it becomes a weird catch 22: you can make decisions for yourself, however, you have lost connection to your sense of self and may not even know what you want. You never had the practice to speak up and you end up in similar situations of people pleasing and putting yourself last. Remember that, although there is this sense that there is something wrong with you, there isn’t! What you feel is a result of growing up in a shame-based family and you can heal from the effects and change how you feel about yourself.

4. Selective Personal Accountability

This is a very classic dynamic of dysfunctional and shame-based families: “It’s ok for me, but not for you!” There is a sense that “I can do whatever I want and change the rules at any time, but you must oblige at all times.” To maintain this dynamic the perpetrator uses blame, criticism and shame to suppress the dependent into paying the price for their actions, even when it’s not their fault or responsibility.

For example, if you yell at someone who is calling you names, it’s not ok. But if I yell at you, it’s because you made me do it. In a healthy family, everyone is accountable for their actions and not shamed for when they don’t uphold them. After all, everyone makes mistakes! Rather, there will be discussions around understanding what happened, how everyone is feeling, and how things can be improved in the future. Parents also take responsibility for their actions when they’ve made a mistake and model how to apologize.

Another aspect of accountability is that when the perpetrator is abusing a family member, they will take no responsibility for it. This permanently causes you to think that there is something wrong with you and that it’s your fault the bad behaviour happened. You might have never experienced this, but know that you are worthy of respectful and restorative dialogue.

5. Denial of the Five Freedoms

The perpetrator ensures that it’s their way or the highway. In other words, you cannot think, feel, perceive, desire or imagine anything other than what they dictate. This takes away your freedom to be you. It’s a must that you are perfect, an ideal that is unreachable, causing significant harm to one’s sense of self and inner spirit.

When you are not free to be you, you will inherently become depressed. One definition of depression is suppressed expression. Because you are always on guard, people pleasing and being silenced you are unable to develop a sense of self, and know what you like or need. This blocks your voice and ability to speak up. All these trapped emotions cause stress, illness, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. I’ve often seen clients develop forms of unhealthy control, since they couldn’t control or have a say in their home environment growing up. Some of these forms create unrealistic home environments that are not sustainable. For example, the need to keep all reusable containers in order to be eco-friendly. The need to do something “right” takes over and then the space becomes unmanageable.

6. Boundary Violation

Since there is no empathy, understanding or inclusion, in a shame-based family your needs come last and since you are unable to speak up, you are likely being violated regularly. Respect for others’ needs are not considered and you feel pressured to do things even though they may be unethical, against your own values and need for safety. You end up doing things you don’t want to do and this continuous boundary violation means that outside of the home you are likely also a target for being bullied and violated.

As adults, if we don’t address our pasts, we end up creating relationships that are similar to those we grew up in because they are familiar and “normal”. As I’ve mentioned before, what is familiar feels safe even though it’s harmful., It’s predictable and the unknown is even scarier. Growing up in a family where there are no boundaries means you don’t develop a sense of self and autonomy.

How shame-based families create clutter

As you can guess the perpetrator dumps all of their shame and responsibilities onto others. Someone’s home in this situation could be neat, tidy and organized however, it’s being maintained out of sheer fear. Other times the perpetrator is literally a slob and others can’t keep up. They struggle with being in dorsal and feeling overwhelmed so again nothing gets done. People in a shame-based family are likely living the sympathetic state (fight or flight) or in dorsal (freeze or fawn). This means they cannot act from a place of problem solving, connection, or groundedness. Being in these states causes people to dissociate where they literally can’t see the mess and are unable to figure out what to do with it when they do notice it.

How to release the cycle of shame

The good news is, there are ways to heal from shame and break the family cycle. Below are five ways that can help you begin to release the shame and learn new ways to love yourself and set boundaries.

Name the shame!

For most of my life, I didn’t understand that what I was feeling was shame. I would only know that I feel horrible about particular situations. Many can relate to this, and making a connection to this feeling and why it’s there is a key first step to being able to release what’s not yours. It’s important that your adult self understands that what happened to you is not a shameful thing. All those times you were shamed for something, it most likely had nothing to do with you. Now it’s time to let it go and release it!

Getting to know how it feels in the body when you feel shame is helpful because to connect with the physical sensation which allows you to address it before the thoughts, stories and inner critic come crashing in. By knowing these sensations you can pause, take a deep breath, breathe into those parts and release the energy that is still trapped from the trauma. You can also do different exercises with a therapist, use the emotion code and other energy work to help you release and complete the cycle of trauma.

2. Boundaries

Setting boundaries can be very challenging, especially if you grew up in a home where speaking up meant severe consequences. Your nervous system remembers these situations and thus makes an association with speaking up as dangerous. It takes time to retrain your nervous system to be safe and doing calming exercises is one way to rebuild it.

Another aspect of boundaries is the ability to say no and take up space. This can be through healthier relationships and with the support of a therapist or trauma coach. It’s a great start to practice in a safe space. Taking tiny steps towards knowing your needs, then being able to communicate them will take time, so be gentle with yourself as you develop this new skill.

3. Building a sense of trust for others

Building an accurate sense of trust for others can be very challenging. It’s important to know that trust is something that develops over time. When growing up in dysfunctional families people often swing from trusting people completely and blindly to not trusting at all. The skill of discernment allows you to slowly assess a situation and get to know someone from a place of observation. When observing, instead of reacting, you are able to see patterns of behaviour that indicate whether or not you can trust someone. Do they respect the boundaries that you set? Are they honest, reliable, and empathetic? Do you feel safe when you are with this person? Are you able to express yourself authentically?

Relational healing is very powerful. For some, the first person they are able to do it with is a therapist and then slowly they find other people to develop healthy and trusting relationships with. Connecting with your own inner strength and trust is also a key component to developing a sense of trust for others. If you don’t trust yourself, how can you trust your discernment of others?

4. Accountability

Even if you were the dependent in your family, it’s likely that you now participate in shaming behaviours yourself, because they were learned and a survival mechanism. Now you have the chance to own your part in your past and current actions. You can learn new ways to communicate your needs that don’t blame, shame or put others or yourself down. This means getting to know what matters to you, how to stand in your power and learning how to speak up for yourself. This takes time, practice and compassion!

5. Reconnect with your Intuition

When we grow up in dysfunctional and shame-based families we lose connection to that inner knowing that we had at a young age. For many, it never left but we doubt that it’s true out of fear of making a mistake or that it counters what is expected in the family unit.

One way that I strengthen my inner knowing is through meditation. I  connect with my heart and work on expanding the energy there. This can be as simple as closing your eyes and placing your hand on your heart. Doing this is also great for calming your nervous system so it’s a win win. While having your eyes closed, you can imagine things that make you smile, things and people that you love, or even just a sense of peace and love. Then once you have this sense slowly remove your hands from your heart and pretend you are holding the energy of this love between them like a ball. Slowly expand your arms out and feel this energy expand with it until you have an immense amount of love, joy, and uplifting energy all around you. It’s a very powerful practice and a wonderful way to start your day!

Shame doesn’t just show up in our homes when we grow up. It’s everywhere. It’s used in marketing to convince you there is something “wrong” with you so you need this product to fix it. It’s in our workplaces when there are toxic relationships, gossip and dysfunctional systems. Committing to yourself that you will put the time, energy and effort into breaking the cycle of shame will have a ripple effect not just in your family but in the world at large!

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