My client remembers being shamed in the fourth grade. She was standing outside of her school with several friends and their parents after a holiday musical program. She said that her mother looked down on her smiling face and announced in front of the group, “What are we going to do with those teeth? They are such a mess!” My client said that the group they were standing with immediately got quiet and everyone glanced at her mouth. She said that while the other parents were raving about the program, her mother was calling attention to her flaws and imperfections. She remembers wanting to hide.
As my client and I got to know each other better, many other shameful moments from her childhood emerged. She remembers her mother responding to her emotional pain with anger rather than compassion. “When I was crying, I would go to my mother for comfort, and she would tell me to ‘suck it up’ and stop being so needy. She had a way of shaming my feelings and now I shame my own. I have come to view my tears, my sadness, and my vulnerability as a weakness, just as she did.”
My client went on to say, ” I am now transferring all of this onto my daughter. Although I vowed to do things much differently with my own children, I have fallen into some of the same patterns. My daughter’s neediness drives me crazy, and I find myself just wanting to tell her to ‘suck it up’, just as my mother told me. I know I am crushing her spirit, but when she is upset, I just don’t want to hear it. Not only do I view my own feelings as a weakness, I view her feelings as a weakness, too.”
This situation is not uncommon. Children who grow up in a shaming environment often have a lot of repressed grief and anger. As a child, it was not safe to express these feelings to the caregiver, so the emotions stay bottled up, go into hiding, and are eventually expressed in indirect and unhealthy ways.
On a deep unconscious level, the shamed adult feels needy due to all of their unprocessed pain and unmet emotional needs. These needy feelings are often denied and disowned because they were once shamed by a caregiver and now provoke extreme anxiety. The neediness of their own child often triggers deep feelings of loss and longing in the adult. Because the adult doesn’t want to feel their own pain, they cannot tolerate the pain of another. To avoid their own pain, they do not allow their children to express emotional pain. This shutting down process only makes the child feel that much more needy. Eventually the child will repress and disconnect from their own pain and the cycle continues.
John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame That Binds You, writes
“We must remember that the shame-based caregivers were once hurting children themselves. Their pain, humiliation and shame were repressed. Their anger toward their shaming parents could not be expressed for fear of losing the parent. That anger was turned inward and became self-hatred. The parent’s defenses against their pain and shame prevent these feelings from erupting into consciousness. If the parent were to let the child express those feelings, it would threaten his own defenses. The parent must stop the child’s feelings of neediness and pain so that he doesn’t have to feel his own feelings of neediness and pain.”
My client and my client’s mother are both good people. Neither one of them wanted to intentionally hurt anyone, especially their own children. They are good people, but their shame has wounded them and has caused them to deny their feelings- feelings that are just part of being human.
By acknowledging the problem, my client has taken a huge first step towards recovery and change. Her recovery will not be easy, and I truly admire her courage. Like cleaning out a closet, things will get worse before they get better, but in the end, it will be well worth it.
She will need to get in touch with her own unresolved pain and allow herself to grieve. She will need to endure the anxiety associated with her true feelings. She will need to look directly at her own sense of shame and feel the excruciating feelings that are connected to it. By doing this, she will change the way she views herself, change the way she views her daughter, and change the way her daughter views herself. It will impact generations to come in an extremely positive way.
Shame is at the root of addiction, compulsions, explosive anger, and many other self-sabotaging behaviors. Is shame at the root of your pain? If you think shame has a grip on you, seek professional help and free yourself from The Shame That Binds You.
Bradshaw, John. Healing the Shame That Binds You. Deerfield, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2005.