Sep 092013
 

The other day, I wrote about some of my self-destructive impulses, about how, when lonely, I sometimes act (and often feel compelled to act) in ways that simultaneously exacerbate the sense of loneliness and make me feel responsible for that loneliness, by making me feel ashamed of myself.

I wrote, almost as a throwaway at the end, “I’m pretty sure this is me acting to protect my mother from my own rage.” This confused (or at least, wasn’t immediately clear to) a number of you.

When I was growing up, my mother didn’t meet some of my very basic needs. This left me with two options: I could conclude that she didn’t love me, or that she did love me, but that somehow, I did something to result in, to deserve, her not meeting those very basic needs.

Kids need to believe their parents love them. The alternative is simply unimaginable. AND, kids don’t realize that they’re not the center of the word, that, on some level, they’re not omnipotent. My mother loved me, I believed axiomatically, and everything that happened happened because of something I did. (This is why kids of divorced parents so often believe they caused the divorce; because to imagine themselves simply witnesses to, rather than causes of, such a mammoth event is even more painful.)

So I believed – I had to believe – that my mother’s neglect of me, her failure to attend to my needs, was because I deserved that. I must have done something, been some way, that caused her to neglect me, to abandon me. It couldn’t have been because she was narcissistic, selfish, self-absorbed, indifferent to me. It had to be because I brought it on myself.

In my adult loneliness, in the moments in which I have acted out sexually, a crucial part of what I have done is acting to make crystal clear to me that my loneliness is deserved. I take the freestanding, unbidden, naturally occurring loneliness, which reminds me of the sensation I had at my mother’s knee, and I am confronted with the same choice with which I was confronted as an infant, as a toddler: do I believe that the universe unfairly has created this circumstance? That my mother’s love wasn’t perfect? Or worse? Or do I believe that it must be my fault, that the universe is fair, that my mother did love me, but that I deserve, that I created, my loneliness?

Surely, it’s easier to believe this. And so I do. And, like a corrupt cop, I invent evidence to support my case, to defend my mother.

  5 Responses to “The etiology of shame”

  1. Sorry to hear that you have quite an unhappy childhood which left an emotional scar in your adult life. When I think back, my childhood was also quite scary with lots of beatings from my father, just feel that those beatings could be a bit excessive for a small kid. Imagined when you were sleeping and being woke up to be beaten just because of poor school results. Imagined before you got out of the bed, you were being slapped in the morning.

  2. “..do I believe that the universe unfairly has created this circumstance? That my mother’s love wasn’t perfect? Or worse? Or do I believe that it must be my fault, that the universe is fair, that my mother did love me, but that I deserve, that I created, my loneliness?

    Surely, it’s easier to believe this.”

    I find it much easier to believe that love isn’t perfect. We’ve all been loved or in love and I think we can all admit that the love given and received has never been perfect. Never.

    • Sorry – maybe I wasn’t clear. Of course, it’s easier to believe this NOW. But when you were 6 months old? Two years old? Five years old? Children believe their parents are OMNIPOTENT. Not just that they’re not flawed, but that there’s nothing they can’t do. It’s only gradually that we come to understand that our parents are neither omnipotent nor perfect. And until then, we organize our thoughts in ways to preserve those beliefs. And then, having done so, it’s very hard to un-learn the lies of which we became convinced way back when. Even after we abandon the reasons we had to fabricate those lies.

      • Thanks for clarifying.

        Do you try/are you trying to unlearn the lies?

        • I think there’s a difference between “unlearning the lies” and “undoing the damage done from having believed the lies at age 1, 2, 3 or 4.” The former is (relatively) easy: as do you, I find it quite easy, in the present, to forgive imperfect love, and to appreciate it (as well as not to imagine its possible existence). But as, I think, is fairly common, I have a number of deeply ingrained habits, the mere understanding of which is nowhere near sufficient to eradicate.

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