Why We Internalise Shame in Childhood
To a newborn baby, a growing child, even to an adult: a mother can represent a whole universe - the force of life, the soft breast that nurtures and nourishes, the embrace that protects.
A mother can also be the source of your frustrations, your anger and your sense of 'not being enough'. Most babies, from the moment of birth, bring delight to their mother, to their parents. Most babies fortunately have their needs met, are loved and accepted, cherished and respected. Most babies might be seen as perfect by those who look after them. But as the baby grows, life gets tougher bit by bit. Those who are looking after the baby might start to have expectations - to sleep through the night, to start crawling, to hold the bottle without help, not to make a fuss at dinner time, and so on. The mother, the parents, might even start to compare their baby to others and the baby is seen as not being perfect after all.
This is the point where conditions of worth need to be met by the growing baby in order to bring the joy and delight on the parents’ faces; the joy and delight that was given so freely to him/her until now, but now is lost. This must be the first significant loss in a person’s life - the loss of unconditional love and acceptance.
This first loss is of great significance and can have long-lasting consequences. This loss might be the first time when a person might experience feelings of abandonment and rejection and might be the first rupture in the baby-mother/parents/carers relationship. If repairs are not done, if the mother/parents are not aware of the impact of their expectations has on their baby and his/her developing brain, and they do nothing in changing the way they relate to their child, this might be the starting point for future insecure attachment issues. Sometimes repairs are hard to make, for instance when the mother is suffering with post-natal depression, or if parents are preoccupied with relationship problems or financial issues.
As time goes on, the baby turns into a toddler, and then a child. The child might learn to adapt to the mother’s or parents' demands, the child starts to learn that they need to be someone else in order to make their parents happy. The child learns to deny some aspects of his/her self that might be frowned upon. The child might start believing that they are responsible when mum gets angry or dad is disappointed, the child might start believing that 'it’s my fault, I might be stupid, I always get it wrong'.
The feeling of “I am not OK” starts in childhood, and some children manage and cope with this internal state, depending on their resilience and support network. Others start communicating this feeling through behaviour that is seen as challenging by those around them. If the child is not able and not helped to break through this not-being-ok position, this can lead to anxiety, toxic stress, depression, isolation and a general feeling of being stuck, of unhappiness and sadness, not feeling alive. A teenager or an adult might turn to alcohol and drugs, self-harm, might develop eating disorders or might start feeling and thinking that life is not worth living. A child with broken wings turns into an adult that does not know how to fly. A parent who does not know how to fly might pass this legacy onto his/her children and this cursed legacy can sadly touch many future generations.
For any person, young or old, the love for mother/parents is the first love. For any person, the first heartache was when the mother/parents stopped loving unconditionally and freely. Ask the grown up who despises her mother/parents or might think that her mum/parents are the worst people in the world. Ask her what is underneath all these powerful feelings. Most of the time, under the anger, hate, frustration or loathing, lies vulnerability and pain and hurt. This wound is the yearning for the unconditional love and acceptance that was lost and no matter how old, part of you is still looking to be the sparkle in your mother’s eyes. It might be a pattern you see repeating in all sorts of relationships and you might be wondering why you always need to meet others' needs and expectations, why you need to be less, or push yourself beyond your limits just to make others happy. Have you thought that it might be in an attempt to avoid rejection and abandonment, an attempt to prevent that early pain repeating? It is a survival mechanism that you learned when you were a little baby. We are born for connection and we can’t exist without the love, care and attention of others and we try to get our emotional needs met no matter what. It might feel less painful to deny or destroy parts of ourselves instead of experiencing this pain again.
As adults, most of us have experienced feeling abandoned and rejected. Just stop for a minute and get in touch with what feelings these experiences bring. You might feel unlovable, unwanted, confused, not enough, ugly, stupid, lacking certain qualities, isolated and alone with overwhelming feelings. Feeling abandoned and rejected might feel catastrophic and might bring feelings that no one could ever love you. If we go back to early experiences, imagine, just imagine, how it must hurt for a young child to feel unlovable by the mother, by his/her parents. Early experiences of feeling unlovable, unwanted, not enough can grow into debilitating questions like “how anyone can love me, like me, accept me, when my own mother or parents had difficulties in showing or having these feelings for me?”
What can be done for adults with broken wings, how can they learn to fly? What can be done for parents who are unhappy with their parenting style? As a parent, you can learn new skills to engage with your child, you can learn to listen, to play, to be empathetic, to see the world through their eyes, to see how hard it is to be so small and powerless. You can learn to be in touch with your inner child: inside of you still lives a little person full of joy and hope and dreams.
By talking with someone in confidence about your experiences, trying to understand and integrate what happened to you, reclaiming different parts of yourself that were too much for those that cared for you, you can bring positive outcomes and a sense of freedom, a sense of being your own person. Counselling can help you in learning to love yourself, as even though the potential harshness of your childhood is long gone, sadly the harshness still lives in you. When exploring your past, you might get a different perspective, you might start developing understanding and empathy for your mother, your parents. You might start forgiving and letting go: most probably your parents also had broken wings and they have tried to do their best. They did not want to hurt you. You can also learn and accept that it was not your fault, whatever happened in your childhood, you were just a child that was not met in joy, was not seen, was not heard.
How much longer can you bear not to fly? How would it be if you could give your children a different legacy? Imagine the difference you can make. Be brave, break the cycle! There is no better time to make changes like the present.