There is a timeline during our very early infancy and childhood during which the shame spectrum normally develops. According to Dr. Allan N. Schore, the actual experience of shame is not a neurological possibility until our bodies have grown enough that we can intentionally physically venture away from our caregiver’s lap — at about 12 months of age.
Schore describes shame as basically being the first normal dissociative experience a toddler has as it excitedly ventures into its new world of discovery and comes back to its caregiver anticipating that this secure attachment figure will share in its excitement and joy. This state of excitement and joy is actually a ‘go’ condition that has activated what is called the sympathetic part of the nervous system.
If the infant returns to its caregiver and the caregiver’s expressed state does not match the state the infant is experiencing, the infant’s nervous system instantaneously ‘crashes’ and the parasympathetic arm of the nervous system activates.
I think of these two nervous system arms as ‘go’ being the sympathetic and ‘stop’ being the parasympathetic — and remember this latter as being like a ‘pair of brakes’. Once the infant hits this brick wall, so to speak, and the nervous system makes this required adjustment, the infant is now well on its way to negotiating its movements in the bigger world that is no longer limited to the closest physical proximity with its attachment figure.
This, then, is shame. It is a physiological nervous system response to one’s hopes of sharing joy and excitement with someone close to us. In order for this to happen ‘normally’ there has to have been a secure attachment relationship between the infant and a caregiver in the first place. In order for this up/down process to become healthily established in one’s body, this ‘stop’ that represents a situation of ‘rupture’ in a relationship has to be followed by a process ending in corresponding ‘repair.’
Naturally this is like breathing in and breathing out. Not normally a big deal. If we had healthy attachments in a safe and secure world, we will be able to negotiate all the ruptures and repairs a lifetime brings us without duress. But if our attachment with our early caregivers was rocky and harmful, we may not only struggle the rest of our lives with attachment relationships, but also with the basic processes involving rupture and repair, with major shame dis-abilities as well.
A growing child is not, according to Schore, physiologically capable of experiencing guilt until its 3rd year. Major maturation has to first occur in both the right and left hemispheres so that the higher cortical thinking processes can come into play.