Wounded By Perfection
Early in my counseling career I had the opportunity to work with a young woman in her late 20’s. She sought counseling due to feelings of depression, low self-esteem, and the belief that she was inadequate as a woman, wife, and mother. She felt like giving up on all of it.
In discovering more about this young lady, her description of her family of origin sounded like something from a Hallmark movie. Dad was kind and caring. He had a great work ethic and glowing reputation with his employer, and he was very good at maintaining a healthy life-work balance. He was a deacon at the local church and participated in the spiritual development of each of his three children, now all adults with their own families.
Her mom had been a public elementary school teacher for many years and was that teacher that every parent wanted their kids to be in her class. She was a wonderful mom and grandma, an excellent cook and baker, kept a beautiful and welcoming home, and adored her husband.
My client was the youngest of three children. All were raised with a good balance of ambition and groundedness. The older sister was a schoolteacher with her mom, and arguably they were best friends. Her life, marriage, family, and home were a veritable duplication of her mom and dad’s – ideal in nearly every way.
Her brother was very popular with everyone around him. He was a high-level athlete who was lauded since childhood by the small community they lived in. He received much of the praise and accolades of the family and was the kind of young man every family dreamed they could raise or that their daughter would marry.
Then there was my client – a committed wife, mother, schoolteacher, church volunteer, and friend. Very unassuming and faithful. But in her mind, she was just not enough. She saw herself as a disappointment when comparing herself to her parents and siblings — her attitude, her success, her marriage, her faith, here home, here children. And she assumed others perceived her in exactly the same way. No matter how hard she tried, she felt she never seemed to get the kudos that her sister and brother did. And regardless of encouraging words her husband spoke into her, she still assumed she could never measure up to the woman, wife, and mother her family expected her to be. She was overwhelmed by the fear of disappointing them.
Did her parents impose these shame messages upon her? Certainly not. Certainly not knowingly. Nevertheless, this young woman was trapped in shame. Just because there was no specific individual or shame message or trauma to attribute this to, it was nonetheless very real in her life. Yet to speak of it, she felt enormous guilt because of a false belief she had internalized that told her, “You need to be thankful for how wonderful a family you were blessed with.”
So, it was not uncommon for her to share her honest feelings with me, then in the very next breath undermine her emotions with justification of why she shouldn’t have those feelings. She was in bondage to a spiral of guilt and shame that she saw little hope of ever escaping. And it was like an emotional cancer inside of her.
Just Trying to Raise Good Kids
As adults, we may play a part in another’s internalizing of shame messages, many times without being fully aware. This is most often a result of invalidation of the child’s natural, innate expression of their emotional needs — all in the name of Christianity and the Bible.
Child: “I want to be a doctor when I grow up.”
Adult: “You’re going to have to do a lot better in school.”
Child: “Can I help make dinner?”
Adult: “Get out of the kitchen before you make a mess.”
Child: “I’m really sad my best friend moved away.”
Adult: “You’ll have other friends. Don’t let it bother you.”
Child: “Our house is just five blocks down from the school.
Adult: “No, it’s five and a half if you count the parking lot.”
Child: “Do you like the picture I drew for you?”
Adult: “I can’t even tell what it is.”
Child: “I’m finished mowing the yard.”
Adult: “I told you to put the mower away when you were done.”
Child: “Can I ask you a question about my homework?”
Adult: “Don’t ever interrupt me when I’m reading.”
Child: “Will you be at my ballgame tonight?”
Adult: “No, I have to work. You want to eat, don’t you?”
Child: “Can I ride my bike to the park?”
Adult: “I don’t know. Can you?”
Many would say that these adults’ responses were necessary to teach the child the difference between “right” and “wrong,” and between “good” and “bad” behavior. Verbal punishment is common in almost every home and school. It relies on shame as the deterrent, in the same way that spanking relies on pain. For over a century, our society has endorsed shaming as one of the most common methods used to regulate children’s behavior, with the underlying false belief that this is how to raise “good” kids.
God wants you to be free from the grip of toxic shame in your life. If you’ve ready to take the first step (or maybe next step), please call us today for Christian counseling. Our counselors are specifically equipped to work with men and women who are ready to get to the core of their struggles. Our team is highly experienced and equipped to walk with you on this journey from brokenness to wholeness. Contact us today at 502-717-5433, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org