One of the great joys of adulthood is that we have a great deal more freedom and power in our lives than we do as children. We have far more leeway to choose the people with whom we associate, the work we take on, and the goals we set for ourselves. We have greater agency in getting our needs met. By contrast, in childhood we are dependent on others for our survival and must find ways to fit our desires into the realities of what others can provide for us, realities that may be painful and disappointing. Often, this means learning to act in ways that are deferential, compliant, and unobtrusive, while authentic desires to be valued, nurtured, and seen become sources of shame and are hidden from others.
These childhood experiences create a lens through which all future relationships are interpreted and experienced. Simply growing older is no guarantee this lens will shift; for many people, psychotherapy is a necessary and valuable tool that helps them learn new ways of being vulnerable about their needs with others, reduce shame, and open up the full range of possibility available to them as adults.
How Childhood Shame Forms the Lens Through Which We Experience Relationships
Humans are social creatures who are extremely interdependent and need one another to survive. This is especially true when we are young and our survival is largely dependent on our family, particularly our parents. As a result, our first social unit—our family—exerts a tremendous influence on whether our needs to be nurtured and valued are met and the beliefs we form about what is possible in relationships.
Because life is inherently complicated and unpredictable, even the most energetic, organized, and thoughtful parents will not be able to meet all of a child’s needs—and the challenge of doing so will be further magnified for parents who are struggling themselves. Thus, children must find ways to adapt to the realities of what is available to them and what works in their families.
For example, the child of overwhelmed parents may learn at a young age to be as independent as possible and that taking care of others is a way to gain approval. While children may be able to adapt to the what of their family’s reality, they often have no real access to the why of the reality. Children are not usually able to intuit that a parent’s neglect or anger may reflect that parent being overwhelmed at work, a trauma in the parent’s life, a parent’s struggle with chronic depression, or any number of reasons that are not a direct reflection of the child. In the absence of this information, children are apt to form their own explanations for why their needs are not attended to. Children may or may not be consciously aware of these explanations, but they are usually painful, deeply felt, and shame-based. A child may imagine they are invisible and uninteresting, that they are burdensome, that they are selfish, or that on some level they are inherently unlovable and undeserving of being cared for.
Whatever explanation they arrive at, children may conclude it is better to not show their needs in the first place than to be disappointed and give credence to any of the possible painful explanations for their disappointment. A wall of shame develops over the child’s authentic desire to be nurtured, signaling to the child that this need must be hidden. Ashamed children may learn to hide their needs in any number of ways—putting the needs of others ahead of their own, not speaking up, not letting others know when they are hurt and in need of care, trying to be rational and reasonable at all times, avoiding people altogether, and striving to be independent at all times, just to name a handful. While these behaviors may be helpful in preventing further pain and disappointment in their families of origin, they can be severely limiting in adulthood. The same child of overburdened parents who goes through their life compulsively taking care of others while never revealing their own need to be taken care of may miss out on much of the richness relationships have to offer, and their painful experience of shame may persist.
How Learning to Be Vulnerable in Psychotherapy Brings Freedom in Adulthood
For many people, psychotherapy is the most effective way to reduce their experience of shame and their corresponding self-protective behaviors so they can access the full range of what is possible in adulthood. Through learning to be vulnerable with their therapist and having that vulnerability responded to in sensitive and caring ways, a person can learn that others are interested in caring about them and that they are not somehow innately flawed or unlovable. The act of coming to see a therapist is inherently about learning to how to make oneself known to another person, and for many people will be a stark departure from all the ways they hide their inner world from others in day-to-day life. This process of learning to be vulnerable with a therapist will almost certainly feel unfamiliar and anxiety-provoking to someone who has learned to hide their needs.
This process of learning to be vulnerable with a therapist takes courage, time, and investment, but can be genuinely transformative. As a person sheds the shame of the past, they can rise up into all the freedom, power, and choices that are available to them as adults.
Part of a therapist’s role is to help the person they are working with notice both the ways in which they are avoiding being vulnerable and the fears and desires that are underlying those self-protective behaviors. A well-attuned therapist will not try to force a person to be vulnerable before they are ready but instead will work to create an atmosphere of warmth and safety where it feels possible for that person to take emotional risks with them. As a person is able to open up more, they are able to see that another person—their therapist—is capable of accepting and working with all of who they are, including the parts of the person that want to be loved and the parts that are frightened and aggressive, rather than just the parts that are deferential and accommodating to others that may have been rewarded when they were younger. Shame diminishes.
This process of learning to be vulnerable with a therapist takes courage, time, and investment, but can be genuinely transformative. As a person sheds the shame of the past, they can rise up into all the freedom, power, and choices that are available to them as adults. They learn that the more of themselves they are able to put out into the world, the richer their relationships with others become. Life can shift to become an experience of abundance rather than one of shame, constriction, and struggle.
Plato famously described an allegorical cave in which lifelong prisoners were chained to one wall facing another blank wall with a fire behind them. All the prisoners could ever see were shadows of figures passing by the cave, projected onto the blank wall by the fire. Having never known anything else, the prisoners mistook the shadows for reality, not knowing they were mere reflections of the full world outside. Those of us who are willing to do the hard work of learning to be vulnerable with a therapist and with others in our lives can unshackle ourselves and step out of the cave into the light of day.
- Clark, C., Caldwell, T., Power, C., & Stansfeld, S. A. (2010). Does the influence of childhood adversity on psychopathology persist across the lifecourse? A 45-year prospective epidemiologic study. Annals of epidemiology, 20(5), 385-394.
- Jacob, T. (2013). Family interaction and psychopathology: Theories, methods and findings. Springer Science & Business Media.
- Kovács, Á. M., Téglás, E., & Endress, A. D. (2010). The social sense: Susceptibility to others’ beliefs in human infants and adults. Science, 330(6012), 1830-1834.
- Plato. “The Simile of the Cave.” Republic. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974. 240-48. Print.
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