While not every daughter will feel ashamed, many do, and suffer silently. Shame emanates from being unloved (“I am deficient, damaged, or less than, which is why I am unloved”), believing what is said to you and about you in your family of origin (“My mother says I’m stupid and lazy, and she knows me”), being isolated by cultural mythology (“All children are loved by their mothers so it’s my fault that I’m not”), and from feeling singled out while everyone else is normal (“I’m the only unloved daughter on the planet, and if my mother doesn’t love me, who will?”). These feelings of shame may be both conscious and unconscious, and can affect your life in significant ways, exerting a toxic influence on your thoughts and behaviors.
When we feel ashamed of ourselves in the context of the mother-daughter relationship, most of us will do what we can to hide it; after all, if we were to confess the real workings of our family of origin, we are positive we’ll be judged badly and that others will come to the same conclusions about us as our mothers and perhaps other family members did. Many of us will deny and bury our thoughts and feelings—about the family dynamics, about our true selves—for as long as we possibly can; the denial is fed by shame as well as hopefulness that, by some miracle, we’ll find a way to have our mothers connect and love us.
But even though denying the shame makes us feel better in the moment, it is a blind alley.
In a counterintuitive book called Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem, Dr. Joseph Burgo argues that by denying or hiding the shame we feel, we miss the opportunity to grow our true selves. I asked Dr. Burgo to answer this question so as to go right to the source of expert opinion:
“We’re born into this world with an expectation for a loving mother and when our love for her is not returned, it invariably fills us with profound shame akin to a feeling of inner defect, damage, or ugliness. I don’t think one can ever transcend this shame entirely, but the way to make it less defining and more bearable is to become a person we feel proud of: by setting and achieving goals, even small ones, and by living up to the expectation for the person we want to be. When we forge connections with people we like and respect and who honor us for who we are, our sense of self-esteem runs deeper and can help offset that deep sense of shame.”
I asked Dr. Burgo about the permanence of shame, and his response was positive, if tempered:
“The legacy of shame doesn’t mean we can’t grow to feel good about ourselves and develop healthy relationships. As we do grow in those ways, shame becomes less pervasive, less defining. It’s an increasingly smaller part of who we are. To make a physical analogy, say you had a sports injury to your leg when you were young; it healed and for the most part, you’re unaware of it. But now and then, especially at times of intense exertion, you feel a twinge in your knee where you hurt yourself. You can still go running or skiing, but you know you have to keep that injury in mind because if you push yourself too hard, it will act up. You may injure yourself further if you pretend nothing ever happened to you. I think of the residual shame that comes from having been unloved as a child in the same way. You know it’s there and most of the time it doesn’t matter, but you can’t completely ignore it either, especially at times of stress and intense emotional challenges.”
I completely agree with Dr. Burgo but as someone who isn’t a therapist or a psychologist, I talk about the importance of recognition and the end of denial which leads us to a place where we can accept what happened to us and begin to change. While Dr. Burgo used the metaphor of the injured bone, I use the image of a hole in the heart; it does get smaller and smaller as you heal and your perspective changes and, eventually, it’s a detail in a larger landscape of your own making.
But if shame is hiding in plain sight in your head, now is the moment to deal.
It is always problematic but in the midst of a pandemic, you need to love and support yourself the best you can. Kicking shame down the stairs is an important step.
This article has been adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPs for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright © 2019, 2020. Only share links back to this site.
Photograph by Parker Johnson. Copyright free. Unsplash.com