Shared Secrets Have the Power to Mend

The Adult Child relies on “as if” behaviors to mask known and unknown intergenerational family secrets that cause feelings of shame. Some are aware of their habitual deceptions and others are tormented by uncertainty. The antidote for their anxiety is “truth.”

Clare and Charles

The focus of Clare’s therapy dramatically shifted after her session with her mother. As Clare grappled with her mother’s painful history of trauma and shame, her feelings ranged among shock, anger, horror, doubt and compassion. In her sessions with me, Clare would plead. “Why would my mother deceive me for so long? How many ways have her lies skewed my reality? Who am I, really?” Other times, Clare would exclaim, “It was a mistake for me to connect with my mother. I hate that she treats me like a child when I am a grown woman!

In time, I asked Clare if she had broached any of her troubling questions and feelings with her mother. “Not yet. I don’t know how to move toward her. It is as though she isn’t my mother anymore.” I asked Clare if this was the first time she had experienced her mother’s vulnerability. “I think I’ve sensed it before; but now that I know she was raped, talking with her feels impossible. Anyway, what would I say?” I commented, “What about sharing your feelings?” Clare bristled, “That’s easy for you to say!” Clearly I had hit a nerve and asked if she felt criticized. She first dodged my question and then admitted feeling shamed. Reluctantly she said, “I am afraid if I look in her eyes, I won’t recognize her. I keep feeling I can’t go home again like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz,” as she wept for herself and for her mother.

In a later session, Clare let me know she had talked with her mother, “Even though it was awkward for both of us, we settled into a good conversation. Mom told me she had been thinking about how angry she’d been with me and made an interesting connection: my interest in Charles and his family occurred at about the same age she was at the time of her trauma. She wondered if the similarity in our ages was what shattered her usual even-tempered neutrality. She said she was afraid that my growing independence wouldn’t allow her to shield me from danger. She looked at me tenderly and let me know she couldn’t bear for me to be hurt as she had been hurt.”

Clare told me she had reconnected with Charles. She let him know how shaken she’d been by the session with her mother. Without sharing any details with him, she told him everything was different. Clare let me know she appreciated his support and how much he had been concerned. She went on to say, “Charles wanted me to know that even though I’ve been going through a painful time with my mother, he thought I was lucky I was being treated as an adult. Then he admitted he is afraid to approach his parents.”

Clare said her conversations with her mother and with Charles had been helpful. She asked if, from her new perspective, it could be helpful for her to review the issues she had been dealing with when she started therapy.  I let her know that revisiting and exploring those events could be helpful and that I would follow her lead.

In our next session, Clare let me know she’d been reviewing some of her journal entries from when she started therapy and noticed the jarring change in her relationship with her mother. She recalled starting therapy because of her mother’s criticisms about her choices at work. “I couldn’t understand why Mom didn’t think it was great that I’d been singled out by the president of the company as a trusted employee to attend to the needs of the firm’s clientele at prestigious functions. I thought she would be happy I was dating Charles and had an opportunity to travel with him and his parents as if I was a member of their family.” Looking back at that time through her new lens of awareness, Clare said, “I don’t know why Charles’ parents singled me out. But, regardless of their motivation, why did I get so sucked in by them?” When she shared that revisiting these issues was bringing up the feelings of isolation and loneliness she felt back then, I asked her to say more about these feelings. Clare continued,

I wasn’t sure I could live up to their expectations. I didn’t know how to dress for those functions. Since Mom disapproved of my decision to participate in these events, I had to figure out everything alone. I was upset with her because she wouldn’t help me. I realize now she might not have known how to help me, so I guess shutting me out helped her save face. My greatest humiliation was discovering that Charles and I were merely pawns in his parents’ elaborate productions. I felt this especially when they criticized Charles for being incompetent and condemned me for being ungrateful. In hindsight, his parents’ behavior seems unduly harsh after Charles and I catered to their every whim.

I went back to Clare’s comment about being pulled so deeply into Charles’ parents’ dynamics and asked her to respond to her own question about how she got so sucked into their drama.

I think Charles and his parents were similar to my restaurant “family.” I think my innocence about people came from spending so much time with my mother, the restaurant owners and their employees. They were all good people and everyone looked out for me and treated me with genuine support and kindness. They were able to give me the kind of attention my mother failed to provide. Don’t get me wrong, Mom gave me everything I needed except for the loving care I wanted from just her.

The attention Charles’ mother was offering me felt good. She cooed and fussed over me. She had a way about her that made me feel like I was special to her. While I liked Charles’ mother’s reassuring attention, I didn’t trust her. She had a subtle way of undermining my confidence and whenever she slighted me, it felt malicious.  

I let Clare know I appreciated how difficult it was for her to recount those experiences and asked if she felt revisiting that time was worthwhile. Clare thought it was helpful. I asked Clare if she had discovered qualities about herself that she liked and of which she had previously been unaware. Clare responded with confidence,

I like knowing I am resourceful and can handle difficult situations, such as finding my way to therapy. I liked that I could swallow my pride to ask sales personnel help me create a wardrobe on a limited budget. I liked learning their fashion tricks, how to accessorize, and make fashion decisions. I discovered I like getting pretty; it’s fun. I’ve liked discovering my instincts about people are worth my serious consideration. I like being friends with Charles beyond his parents’ fiction. I like being in therapy and claiming ownership of my life.

Clinical Considerations

Before I started this post’s Clinical Considerations, I reread the closing paragraph from last month’s post where I neatly tied up Clare’s interaction with her mother in their therapy session. As evidenced in this post, Clare’s healing process needed more time.

Clare’s mother’s story about being a war widow served her well and yet it was detrimental for Clare. This “as if” story tainted Clare’s perception of sincerity in relationships. Clare became trapped in the Rescuer role in response to her mother’s Victim role in the closed system of the Dysfunctional Triangle. Clare was holding a secret, out of her awareness, with the “as if” behaviors she had learned from her mother. When Clare’s accommodating habits played out at work, her dutiful demeanor and blind trust in the company’s owners raised red flags for her mother. Clare’s rejection of her mother’s uncharacteristic concern and criticism put her in a bind. Looking for affirmation, she moved toward Charles’ mother. Before long, she discovered Charles’ mother wasn’t as caring as she seemed. It was only when Charles’ parents’ scorned her wish to be treated fairly that she valued her mother’s initial caution.

Intergenerational trauma longs to be resolved. Clarifying generational secrets and shame is needed to break out of the cycle of dysfunction. Therapy supports the exploration of painful thoughts and feelings so they can be acknowledged, grieved and resolved. Clare’s work in therapy allowed her to think about the issues that confused her. In the secure space of the therapeutic relationship, Clare struggled to see things as they really were, not as they had been portrayed. When her mother joined her in a session and her mother’s secret and long-buried shame spilled out unchecked, Clare was shocked to learn her mother’s truth. She wondered if her mother had extended a healing gesture or if she had inflicted a curse. She needed time to make sense of her feelings.

This current Rupture with her mother required Clare to work through her Regressive feelings in all the roles in the Dysfunctional Triangle: Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer. Caught in confusion, Clare struggled with her mother’s truth and with her own. She had a lot of questions. Was her mother’s earlier criticism about work an attempt to keep Clare close to her? Was her mother’s truth retaliatory or compassionate? Did her mother want to remove the barriers she mistakenly believed would protect Clare? Did she reveal her secret to heal their relationship? The world Clare knew was shattered and that she compared herself to feeling lost as Dorothy felt in Oz was an apt metaphor.

“The Wizard of Oz” story captures poignant aspects of Clare’s therapeutic journey. From my perspective, Clare was born in “Oz.” She lived in a fantasy world created by her mother to conceal the shameful circumstances of Clare’s conception. She safeguarded Clare with an “as if” story that distorted their chance of a secure parent/child bond. Clare’s mother, like “Glinda, the Good Witch of the North,” is ever watchful as she floats in and out of connection, encased in a bubble. Clare’s journey is different than Dorothy’s, yet it shares similarities. Clare is supported by the kindness of others, as was Dorothy as she set off down the Yellow Brick Road with cautionary maternal instructions to stay on the path. Under the watchful and loving eyes of her mother, Clare’s early relationships were genuinely supportive without being any more realistic than Dorothy’s. The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion travelled with Dorothy. These characters, for Clare, represented the wisdom, compassion and courage inside herself that I held for her, as her therapist, until she could claim them. Her encounter with a wily witch who distracts her with the splendor of abundance was just a temporary interruption. When she arrives in the Emerald City of Oz, truth changed everything for Dorothy, as it did for Clare, until Glinda returns and reminds Dorothy and Clare that, “There’s no place like home.”

Moving through confusing Regressive feelings is a personal voyage that cannot be rushed. This was demonstrated by Clare for me when I prematurely suggested Clare share her difficult and awkward feelings with her mother. Clare’s willingness to be openly angry with me, as though I was a critical mother with an agenda, was something she couldn’t do with her mother.  Her direct response to me reflected her developing emotional stamina and sense of personal boundaries. Clare used “Might for Right” from the Persecutor role and in that moment she departed the closed system of the Dysfunctional Triangle. Her authentic and honest connection with me moved her through Regression and into Repair (in the 4 Rs Model) and shifted the cycle of her intergenerational trauma. Clare’s therapeutic journey initiated change for her and inspired awareness in her mother and in Charles.