I don’t know when things began to be so misunderstood, but our cultures clearly contribute to perfectionism, shame, low self-esteem and a general dissatisfaction with the self. Children learn young that they are supposed to be the “best,” and that involves as many people as possible not doing as well as they do. We are supposed to build close relationships at the same time our “success” involves those around us not doing well. This seems to me a sick system, but we are raised in it. As a therapist who has treated numerous people who did manage to be the supposed best—even though they were intensely unhappy—as well as those who did not, I see what this does to people. I have always told my clients that it is good to know what they are “good” at and what they are not. When I started out, I remember being shocked that people had a hard time with this idea, that it was too loaded to be matter-of-fact. And yet, people pour into therapy complaining of having low self-esteem. What is self-esteem really but seeing ourselves as compared to others and coming out favorably or unfavorably? Far too often people compare the act others put on to their own real feelings. That is like comparing how you look as soon as you wake up to someone dressed for an event.
A lot has been written about forgiveness and much more can be written. I think there is so much false forgiveness in our culture, it does more harm than good. There are people who say they have never experienced any anger, and when you get to know them, you see many acts of passive-aggression, showing that they do in fact have anger. But people think it is a spiritual stance not to have any anger, and I have known many people in the spiritual communities who are extremely angry. I also think that people are judged for feeling angry in our culture. I think the people who are angry judge others who openly express their anger and then feel one up. There are people who have been horribly wronged—of course they are angry! It’s interesting that our culture has so little tolerance for genuine and righteous anger, and yet we have such an angry culture. All we have to do is look at all the spiritual one-upmanship that abounds to know how much anger is around. I am of the belief that to really forgive, whatever one means by it, there needs to be some understanding and acknowledgment of the anger and hurt felt, and what was felt by the perpetrator. I do not think there is a “should” with forgiveness, but who wants to feel pain forever because there is an ongoing passionate hatred for someone, whether they deserved it or not?
In this blog I will write of a young woman who came first to genuine compassion and empathy and then forgiveness, and how she spread it around. I think this is someone who walked the walk, not just talked the talk.
I think shame and a feeling of being bad or unacceptable come after learning we are separate. We all have to learn this, like it or not. Then, if we are accepted in our separateness, we have a chance to not be filled with shame and a longing to be better in some vague way. People who had miserable, abusive childhoods were obviously not given this and in fact are given multiple messages that they are bad. That is the essence of shame, that we are somehow bad in a core kind of way. Yet, there are non-abusive homes in which the parents do not know how to let their children know that they are okay in their being different from them. But some special parents do not need their children to be identical to them, to mirror how they wish they were. My mother was such a person. She never studied psychology but knew in her heart in a truly wise way.
Psychologists and other mental health professionals talk a lot about labels. There are reasons, of course: We all know what it means when someone is depressed, for example. We can understand it as a state of mind aside from it being a diagnostic label. We know that if someone is schizophrenic, it is a very sad situation. Labels exist so people can communicate without needing a long explanation each time. I get that, of course. In my profession, we also say that to provide the right treatment, we need the right diagnosis; while there is leeway in the treatments that may be provided, there is truth also in the belief that the right diagnosis shapes the treatment options we consider. To continue with the same example, you would not treat someone depressed in the same way you would someone with a psychosis; however, I would hope that many things would be the same—the caring, the respect, and the remembering that both are human beings with feelings. It is this last point that I have been thinking about for a long time—for years really.
Parents are the major influence on the self-esteem of their children, and yet sometimes get so wrapped up in wanting them to do well or to be the “best” at something, they forget the effect they are having. I think it is helpful to look at what not to do. When my daughter was five and a half, we adopted her from South America. She went to preschool for a time and then Kindergarten. I speak Spanish but she learned English very quickly.
When she was in Kindergarten, she took a standardized test and scored in the 97th percentile in language skills. When I picked her up from school and we were walking to the car, I said it was amazing that she did so well, especially as she was still learning English. We got to the car, and seconds afterwards a classmate and his mother were getting to their car. The mother was screaming at this child, whom I will call Chuck. She yelled, “You just did AVERAGE! AVERAGE! How do you think that makes me feel?” and she went on to berate him as he got into the car with his head down. I didn’t say anything to her, because this kind of emotional abuse is not illegal and I feared making things worse for the little boy. My daughter said to me, “I guess Chuck’s mom isn’t so happy with him.” She asked me why the mother was so angry, and I tried my best to answer her.
She was about 80 and didn't consider herself old. She lived in a nursing home with her husband, who usually didn't know who she was. She couldn't hear, so doing therapy with her meant you had to write her notes, and very quickly. She was also extremely intelligent, probably gifted, but then in her era most people didn't care if a woman was gifted, and she was pushed to get married and have children. She got dialysis a few times a week, and I hadn't known how brutal a process this is, involving sitting up for hours and having huge bruises to show for it. She had one leg as her diabetes necessitated an amputation.
I never knew anyone as grateful for life as she was. She once told me that she knew I would cry for her when she died, but that she would be living in glory, happy as can be in a better place. Yet she was human. A doctor once talked down to her and she was understandably very angry. She was very religious and said that people with their egos made her sick. In mid-session she started to laugh and said, "Look at me! I'm not much better than he is or I wouldn't be so upset!" We talked about how it is easier to not involve the ego so much when not challenged by someone who is really stuck there and how quickly we can fall. She often said she loved me, and told me I was not a pompous ass. I would tell her sometimes in my field you end up being therapist to someone superior to you and you keep learning from them. She smiled.
A lot of well-meaning people often say to psychologists that we deal with “depressing things” and are always concerned with emotional pain. A lot of people think that talking or writing about painful topics is somehow “negative,” and I would like to address this issue, as well as the “upbeat” part of the psychotherapist’s work.
In all fairness, anyone concerned with healing is concerned with the disease process in the physical realm, and emotional pain in the psychological. (This article does not address the mind-body-spirit connection, which is also very important.) It is very hard to change or to facilitate the healing process without addressing the issues. As a professor of mine once said, “No one goes to a psychologist to say that life has been great, or because they just wanted to be nice to psychologists.” This is true. People come in because they are experiencing pretty extreme emotional unease. Those who have had therapy come in recognizing that they have done some of the work and want to do more.
One of the painful things about being a psychotherapist is sometimes seeing problems as they are developing in children, and being unable to change the circumstances that foster these problems. In the past I did many psychological evaluations of children, and would sometimes see them periodically over the course of years. There is certainly much mistreatment of children that never reaches the attention of the authorities, but evaluating these children, who were in foster care year after year, taught me a lot about our system and about the human condition. I remembered again some of these children as I wrote my book, and was thinking recently about how many of the issues I often see now in my adult clients, like obsessive-compulsive disorder, were born during childhoods not so different from those of the children I used to see. I'd like to tell you about "Elena," one of the children I evaluated, to illustrate how our experiences as children mold and shape our personalities.
Elena was four years old when I first saw her. She was physically and sexually abused by one of her mother’s boyfriends, and her mother said she did not believe her. When Elena began to act out with others, the authorities became involved. Her mother belittled her often, and did it in front of others. The current boyfriend cursed at her, called her names, and would go into alcoholic rages that were unpredictable. He had been physically abusive, but when he began to sexually abuse her Elena became even more frightened all the time. She remained at home for several years while services were provided to the mother and the boyfriend moved out, but there were other boyfriends and she was often left alone in the house, without food or support of any kind. Elena had therapy, but the result was minimal as her mother was uncooperative. When Elena would cry or tell her mother she was afraid of the dark and afraid to be in her room, her mother would laugh and make fun of her.
Aleta Edwards, Psy.D.
I am a psychotherapist in private practice, with a strong interest in shame and perfectionism. I will periodically post my thoughts about these topics and other observations relating to emotional health.