Generational shame leaves the Adult Child without a secure foundation for healthy self-esteem.
This post will focus on the impact of unresolved parental “shame” on a child. It is impossible for a child to provide emotional security for one’s parents. Yet Hank and Grace, members of a psychotherapy group featured in earlier posts, were caught in this untenable bind. While at first glance, they appear to be as different as day and night, they are merely different sides of the same coin. Notice how insecurity runs deep for each of them and how their self-protective coping patterns restrict their ability to form healthy relationships.
Her mother’s only child, Grace was shy, withdrawn and distrustful of others when she first joined the group. She idolized her mother, “her best friend.” She talked about how special her mother made her feel with their daily rituals, shared confidences, and special trips and outings. She occasionally noted that this closeness with her mother came at a high price for her. When the group asked her to expand on what “closeness at a price” meant, Grace was reluctant to respond. Instead she made allowances for her mother’s demanding ways. She believed they were the result of her mother being the youngest in a well-to-do family that was financially and emotionally devastated by the Depression. Grace felt sorry for her mother and described her as a sorrowful soul filled with anger, fear, and resentment who secured a first-class future with a man of significant wealth who died before Grace knew him.
In the group, Grace was eventually able to disclose that her mother’s self-absorption, arbitrary sternness, and critical judgment caused her pain. She explained that her mother’s incessant gossip about her social set reinforced norms she expected of Grace. Their planned outings could be abruptly cancelled because of a perceived “misdeed” on Grace’s part; and when their outings did occur, they became public occasions for Grace’s mother to critique her behavior and appearance. The group expressed concern that Grace’s mother treated her at best like a “lady in waiting” and at worst like “Cinderella.”
Grace arrived at group one evening, feeling overwhelmed with terror that she might be fired from her job. When group members asked what happened, Grace heatedly insisted she’d been betrayed by her boss. She noted that when she started this job, she made every effort to please her boss by coming in early, staying late and even taking work home. Group members asked Grace if her boss knew the lengths she took to do her work well. Grace said, “No” and angrily stated it shouldn’t matter anyway, because her work is usually perfect and she should be pardoned for an occasional error. The group asked Grace if her anger at her boss might instead belong to her mother. Grace was startled by the rush of overwhelming anger she felt toward her mother and herself for these ever-present feelings of fear, guilt and shame. The group helped Grace appreciate these unfamiliar feelings by gently reminding her she experienced a similar emotion when she got annoyed with Hank for ignoring her. They reminded Grace that her anger toward Hank provided her an opportunity to indirectly confront her mother.
Early on in the group, Hank expressed his disgust about his father’s hateful and hurtful treatment. “No matter how hard I try to please him, he always reminds me how I’ve failed to meet his expectations.” Hank said he hated hearing his father’s stories about how Hank’s grandfather was a broken man who barely provided for his family. Without knowing the details, Hank knew all too well how his father had to take responsibility for providing for his family until he ran away to join the military where he got an education and achieved success by rising up the ranks.
The only boy growing up in his military family, Hank spent most of his childhood being shuttled from one military base to another with his mother and sisters. His father expected Hank to step up as the man of the house when needed and to succeed academically and in sports. “Easier said than done,” thought Hank as he struggled to adjust to new schools, new communities and new friends. His father’s ever-present demand for Hank to “make him proud” felt tedious and futile. Hank had a difficult time with his father’s expectations and brutal insults. The most painful of these were when his father would tell Hank that he was “just like” his grandfather. While Hank knew this comparison was meant to humiliate, it just created confusion for him because he had fond memories of his grandfather’s kindness toward him.
As Hank’s behavior in group started to mimic aspects of his experiences with his father, the group let Hank know that his intrusive and dismissive interactions made it difficult for them to connect with him. Some group members appreciated Hank’s exasperation when efforts to connect with his father turned into screaming matches. Others noticed Hank’s tendency to resort to sarcasm, deflection, and distance and wondered if this was a way to shield himself from more painful emotions. When Hank started to grasp how he was behaving like his father, he realized this was a dead-end for him in all his relationships.
Grace and Hank were both swallowed up by the unresolved shame carried by their parents. With perspective and hindsight, in the secure space of the group, they now see how their parent’s unrealistic expectations produced the emotional glass ceiling that keeps them trapped in isolation and uncertainty.
Both Grace and Hank parents’ families were overwhelmed by societal circumstances beyond their control. During these difficult times, with no one available to comfort their parents, their childhood anxieties morphed into emotional distortions that made their worlds feel unbearable. It is important to recognize when parents don’t have access to their own feelings of distress and the roots of their internalized shame, their children are at risk to experience their fears and emotional distortions. While alcohol may have been a factor in Grace and Hank’s families, the significant distress for them was growing up in the chaos of unchecked emotional baggage that caused them to experience their parents as overwhelming and threatening.
Both Grace and Hank longed for acceptance, approval and affirmation from parents who could not provide it. We can imagine how their first efforts to awaken loving feelings from their parents might have involved multiple attempts to be pleasing and agreeable. When each recognized that loving care wasn’t forthcoming, they resorted to habitual coping behaviors to protect themselves. Grace chose compliance, whereas Hank chose defiance. Grace retreated, and Hank intruded. Grace became passive, while Hank became aggressive.
The 4 Rs Model, explained in 2015 posts, is a valuable approach to observe internalized shame in the repetitive patterns of parent/child “Ruptures” that bring on feelings of powerlessness in “Regression.” Sadly, the Adult Child rarely gets to slow one’s feelings down enough to move into “Repair.”
Group psychotherapy is a powerful healing approach for the Adult Child to experience one’s feelings in a secure setting. For Grace and Hank, group provides them opportunities to discover that expressions of feeling from others are not always personal to them. Through their connections in the group, they are discovering that healthy boundaries lay the foundation of trust that supports the development of positive self-esteem.