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Within every family, we have lyrics or beliefs or “rules” that govern everything within the family. Relationships, communication, conflict resolution, emotional and physical intimacy, interaction with the outside world are all orchestrated by the “family rules.” These rules act like walls that are rigid or flexible. The more dysfunctional the family, the more rigid the rules become.

Family dysfunction is on a continuum of healthy and unhealthy. There are no “perfect” families. The level of dysfunction will affect the emotional and social development of every member. This is where we learn most of our dances. It is often where The Deceiver creates and reinforces our negative lyrics or belief systems.

Family Rules

A family “rule” is something known or unknown that dictates how a family behaves, handles conflict, communicates, and expresses feelings or opinions. They define the structure of the family and relationships within the family. Rules often can have serious and detrimental effects on a child. An example of a “rule” is, “Children should be seen and not heard.” This rule diminishes the child’s very existence. It gives the clear message that the child is invisible and doesn’t matter. This would inflict a sense of worthlessness in a child.

Healthy families have rules, but they are flexible and can be adapted to change. It allows new information brought to the family and the ability to adapt to a new “normal.” Members feel respected, loved, and free to communicate opinions and emotions.

There are healthy boundaries within the relationships or subsets. A subset is mom and dad, mom and sister, sister and brother, father and sister, father and brother, etc. Each boundary around the subset and around the family is healthy, flexible, and adaptable.

Rules that govern shame-based families:

Control. One must be in control of all interactions, feelings, and personal behavior at all times. (Control is the major defense strategy for shame.)

Perfectionism. Always be right in everything you do. (Family members live according to an externalized image. No one ever measures up.)

Blame. Whenever things don’t turn out as planned, blame yourself or others. (Blame is another cover-up for shame.)

Denial of the Five Freedoms. You should not perceive, think, feel, desire, or imagine the way you do. (You should do these the way the perfectionist ideal demands.)

The No-Talk Rule. I cannot express my feelings, needs, or wants.

Don’t Make Mistakes. If you admit a mistake, it will reveal how flawed or vulnerable you are. Cover up your mistakes, and if someone else makes a mistake, shame them. (To acknowledge a mistake is to open oneself to scrutiny.)

Unreliability. Don’t trust anyone, and you will never be disappointed. (The parents did not get their developmental dependency needs met and will not be there for their children to depend on.)

How does shame impact a family?

Shame enters from significant people in our lives and becomes a part of our root system. It nourishes the trunk or lyrics and results in the fruit of shame and its various expressions. Members within a shame-driven family will display various indications of shame. Some are more obvious, and some remain hidden. Shame is woven into the tapestry of rules, lyrics, emotions, and relationships.

Shame becomes pervasive or chronic through intense experiences of shame in childhood. Parents can unintentionally transfer their shame to their children through verbal messages or nonverbal behavior. For an example, a child might feel unloved in reaction to a parent’s depression, indifference, absence, or irritability. They may feel inadequate due to a parent’s competitiveness or over-correcting behavior, criticism, condemnation, or comparing to others.

Chronic or pervasive shame can lead to aggression, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and addictions. It generates low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and codependency. It limits our ability to enjoy satisfying relationships and professional success. It creates deep wells of pain and suffering. It becomes an integral part of our dance with The Deceiver.

 Shame usually enters in childhood through the following:

Physical or emotional abandonment. This creates insecurity, fear of abandonment, or rejection.

Rejection and unmet needs. This could be directly or indirectly through parents’ illness, busyness, or preoccupation with other problems. They are unable to meet a child’s emotional needs for love, acceptance, and approval.

Labels, name calling. Name calling. Ridicule reinforces a child’s lyrics that she or he is “flawed,” “less than,” or not enough.

Keeping “secrets.” Most abusive families maintain their dysfunction by “keeping secrets.” Family members are required to stay silent to protect the family. Parental disbelief, defending the abuser, or accusations will shame the child into silence, denial, pretending, or acting out. Disclosure and getting help are seen as bad and a threat to the family.