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.
I have early, preschool memories. I always have. I might have trouble remembering dates of everything important to me, or times, or names, but I remember some early things and I remember issues. When I was very young, my mother didn’t work or drive and we would walk everywhere. One day we walked to get ice cream cones, as was our custom. My mother, ordering for us, asked for two vanilla cones. I was very young. I was gripped in an intense anxiety and asked her why she always got vanilla, as I burst out crying. My heart was pounding and this was a significant development for me. My mother, knowing what I was feeling, said, “Oh! I should have asked you. Do you want something else? Do you want chocolate?” Crying, I said I did. My mother went on and said that we loved each other and that it was okay to not like the same things, that people can love each other a lot and like different things and that this had nothing to do with love. She said she did not need me to like what she liked to know I loved her or to love me. The anxiety started to leave me. My mother then went on to say I was growing older and that she should have realized it was time to change the habit of just ordering for me. She went on to say people were not good or bad because of a food preference.
A short time later we took a walk to the drugstore, back in the day when you could eat lunch there and have a fountain drink. We lived in Jacksonville, Florida, at the time. My mother ordered two hot dogs, and added "No mayonnaise." I asked her what mayonnaise was, and she said it was "the white stuff I use when I make tuna fish." I said I loved that, and she asked if I wanted it on mine. At this place, they used to put everything on hot dogs – mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, and relish. I told her I did want it, and it was fantastic! I asked her if this was like the ice cream, and she laughed and said it was. She said to always remind her of what I wanted, because she got used to my not knowing things and might forget and just order for me. I was so happy because chocolate and mayonnaise entered my world, and more importantly, I was okay, and good, and free to explore my feelings and preferences without guilt or shame. I have remembered this all my life and I am sixty now.
Several years ago I complimented my client Cindi’s hair. It was short and spiky with a purplish streak, and she looked great and I loved it. She burst out crying, and when I asked why, she said her mother never approved of her hair and she finally thought she may as well do it the way she wanted and have some fun with it, since she never liked it anyway. But the act of freedom and trying to have some fun with her style was not what she had hoped. She admitted to feeling bad and ugly and also guilty, and avoided seeing her mother. I could give you hundreds of examples of people even in their 30s who had a hairstyle or other thing the mother didn’t like. People oppose their parents and then think they are horrible people. They go into therapy because they are in their 30s and can’t find what they want to do in life. It’s no wonder! They were not allowed to even be, let alone be someone with some self-expression. It is amazing the kinds of details that make people feel filled with shame and badness.
When I told Cindi what my mother had told me, she began to sob, and I told her my mother could share this with her as well. Of course, we had more work, but the goal of this work was to help her internalize what was so freely given to me at the time it needed to be. Some people really feel they are bad people because they didn’t clean their apartment, wash their dishes, do laundry on schedule, watched television instead of learning something that evening. I could go on forever. I finally came up with the phrase “morally neutral” for my clients, to refer to these things that are neither good nor bad.
As I have said, I have had my own path to walk and sometimes it has been very long, but that is not the purpose of this blog. I have never doubted my essential goodness and decency as a person. I have never measured myself or others by achievements. I have always known that I am not my achievements, my things, my likes and dislikes. I had never thought about this until I met so very many people who did not get the gift I was given, and I have had the honor of working with so many with these issues.
For my mother’s birthday, I want to thank her, to let her know that this gift, in the context of ice cream and a hot dog, was one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child. I want her to know how her wisdom is freely given to those in need. Until I worked with people therapeutically and saw how a majority had these painful issues of shame and not being good enough, I never knew I was rich. I am sixty now and I put things together better than before, and when my mind tends to worry about different things or to feel bad about aspects of life that hurt, I remember that pearl sitting in my heart that my mother gave me – all the more valuable because she responded quickly and without intellectually knowing, just knowing. I pray that my mother is with the angels in a wonderful place, soothing, healing, making people laugh, as she did in this life, and I thank her with all my heart. I will always care about shame and related issues and reach out to help people, and I will never forget my brush with those feelings.
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.