The Power of the Adult Child’s Shame-filled Secrets

Emotional distance caused by secret shame can be reversed with heartfelt attention.

Clare’s therapy continued. She was happy to report that things were going well between her and Charles. (See July post, link) Clare noted, however, that her confusion about her mother’s reaction to the whole Charles situation persisted. “I asked my mom if we could talk about what has been going on between us; she cried but then said nothing. While she’s always been somewhat distant, this is different. I can’t find a way to connect with her and I am scared for her and for me.” I commented to Clare that because of her work crisis, until now we haven’t had the time to discuss her relationship with her mother. I said, “I am interested in learning about your childhood and family.” Clare shared her history:

I was born shortly after my mom bought our house here. My childhood was pretty simple; it centered on school, my mom, and the restaurant where she worked as a bookkeeper. When I asked my mom about my father, she told me he died in the first Gulf war before I was born. Her parents also died before I was born. I remember mom saying they had a large house in a rural town up north. My grandfather was a skilled handyman and renovated their home into a small hotel/boarding house with a separate living area for the family. After he got drafted to Vietnam, my grandmother kept their business going while also raising my mother. Upon his return, their life was upended and continuously challenged by the physical and emotional injuries my grandfather suffered in the war. I have the sense my mother started working as soon as she could walk. She and her mother ran the family business together. Her father taught her how to manage the business accounts, do the bookkeeping, and repair anything that needed fixing on the premises. After her mother’s death, Mom ran the business and took care of her father until he died. My sense was she’d planned to stay there but for some reason she sold her parent’s property and moved here. I asked her once if we could go see it. She said, no.

For me, my real family consisted of my mother, the owners of the restaurant, and some of their staff. I heard once that when she started at the restaurant no one knew she was married or pregnant with me until after she told them the news of my father’s death in Iraq. I’ve never seen any pictures of him or even a marriage license. I’ve never met anyone from my father’s side of the family and somehow knew not to ask for details.

The restaurant was a happy place for me. I was there every day after school doing my homework and helping out with odd jobs. My mother liked that I was responsible and respectful. When I was in high school, Mom taught me how to do the bookkeeping. I quickly adopted her attention to detail and her work ethic. Everything she taught me advanced my studies as a business major. Mom wanted me to be self-reliant like she was and taught me all the handyman skills she learned from her father.

I asked Clare if she had shared any of this with Charles. “Oh no,” she said, “You are the first person I’ve ever talked with about my life.” I asked her how it felt to tell me. “Well, I feel comfortable and a little fearful, like I’m breaking an unspoken rule.”

My mother’s always been a really private person. It’s as though she never considered getting too close to those at the restaurant who loved and supported her and me.  I enjoyed their love and attention. Thinking about it now, I realize I’ve been smiled at my whole life, so much so that my mother’s reserve never caused me to wonder if she loved me.

As Clare said this, her eyes filled with tears. “Until this moment,” Clare sobbed, “I’ve never doubted my mom’s love for me.” Clare let me know she was feeling upset, as if she’d bumped into something scary in the dark. She asked me if her mother could come with her to a session. “I need to ask her to tell me what I did to cause her to turn away from me.”  I nodded, yes.

Clare and her mother, Gladys

At her next session, Clare introduced me to her mother, Gladys, who was palpably ill at ease. I let Gladys know that I was there to help her and Clare as they talked about the recent strain in their relationship. Clare started by saying, “Mom, I am concerned about how sad you’ve been after getting angry with me. I know I didn’t heed your warning about going on the European cruise with Charles and his parents. I didn’t even consider that you might have been nervous that I might lose my job. I want you to know I talked with Charles about your concern and he assured me that my job is secure.” Clare looked at me and said she was feeling a little anxious. I assured her that she was doing fine and that perhaps her mother needed a little time to find her words. Gladys said, “I’m sorry, I feel very awkward. I don’t know where to begin.” I encouraged her to take her time.  

Clare, what I am about to tell you is complicated, I know it will be as difficult for you to hear as it is for me to share. Please don’t interrupt me.

I want you to know I feel awful about how I’ve been treating you. I swore to myself I would never react toward you with anger. I’ve never wanted to hurt you and yet I know I didn’t let myself love you as you deserved to be loved. I regret relying on others to give you the love you needed from me.

Gladys continued and spoke as if she was alone, talking only to herself.

I am filled with shame and humiliation for living a lie. Your father was a salesman who rented a room from us every couple of months to service his territory. He was friendly enough, but I never knew him well. After my father’s death, I was running the business alone and he took advantage of me. I blame myself for what happened. Then I started feeling so afraid and nervous. I knew I couldn’t stay there any longer so I contacted a family who had expressed interest in my parent’s property, sold it to them and left. With the money I got from the sale of my parent’s home, I bought a fixer-upper here in a nice neighborhood for a good price, invested the remaining money, and got my job at the restaurant.

Clare, it wasn’t until I got here that I learned I was pregnant. I didn’t know what to do and I felt so ashamed. When I started to show, I made up a story that my husband had died while serving in Iraq. I felt unworthy of all the kindness and support everyone at the restaurant extended to me. Even so, I accepted their generosity so you could be embraced by their love and affection from the day you were born.

I’ve been comfortably living with my lies for so long that my outrage at you startled me. I don’t understand how your work situation could cause me to react so out of character. I’m sorry I created trouble for Charles by making you insist the company pay you when you went away with him and his parents. I’ve been worried about money since the market crashed in 2008 and after the restaurant closed. I’ve hated depending on your income. I wanted you to think I was caring for you.

Gladys fell silent; I asked if she would like some water. She nodded yes, I asked Clare to please get some for her mother. Alone with Gladys, I asked, “Is this the first time you’ve ever spoken of your secrets?” She replied emphatically, “Yes, I never planned to tell anyone anything, ever! I was so ashamed of what happened to me. I guess I was afraid it could happen to Clare if she let herself get too close to Charles.” Clare returned with the water and overheard her mother’s concern for her. Gladys looked at Clare and said, “I realize now, how it’s always been all about me.” Clare comforted her mother and tenderly thanked her for her care and protection. Overwhelmed by sorrow, we sat together in silence.

Clinical Considerations:

Clare’s awareness of herself as an Adult Child came into focus when her work situation with Charles, in his family’s business, upset her mother’s well-structured life. From the perspective of the roles in Dysfunctional Triangle and the reactive stages of the 4 Rs Model, let’s explore how Gladys’ “secrets” trapped both her and Clare in a perpetual parent/child relationship.  

In the closed system of the Dysfunctional Triangle, Gladys occupied both the Victim and Persecutor roles and Clare assumed the Rescuer role. Clare was accommodating and cooperative. Her compliance merged adaptively with her mother’s need for power as a Persecutor and her frailty as a Victim. Clare accepted the unspoken requirement that she meet her mother’s every expectation. Theirs was an easy going life of predictable and pleasing interactions.  

Clare inadvertently broke out of the closed system of the Dysfunctional Triangle when her decisions about work and her relationship with Charles chafed against her mother’s wishes. Her shift out of the Rescuer role and into the open stance of the Persecutor role caused her discomfort; she had never considered displeasing her mother. Clare’s ability to break out of their stuck parent/child patterns was a result of the love and support she’d received from her surrogate restaurant family. The secure foundation they provided her was reflected in Clare’s self-reliance in finding a therapist when she couldn’t get the support she needed from her mother.

From the perspective of the 4 Rs Model, Clare’s choices initiated a Rupture that overwhelmed her mother with painful memories. Gladys’ feelings in Regression were the long-buried feelings of isolation and fear she felt after her parents died and the self-loathing and shame of her rape trauma. By revealing her truth, Gladys could relax the defenses she had used to hide her secret shame. Clare could let go of her fears about not feeling good enough. The pain and sorrow they shared powerfully transformed their lives and moved them into Repair.

In next month’s blog, we continue with Clare and Charles as he follows her lead to understand his parents.