- To be happier and more content, you may need to extricate yourself from the burdens of self-defeatist childhood programming.
- Our personal defense system is embedded in societal and cultural biases—as they might relate to racism, ethnicity, patriarchy, and individualism.
- Therapists frequently prompt us to review the possibly questionable authority that earlier we granted our parents to determine our self-worth.
The question posed in the title is hardly trivial. Many of us harbor a self-belittling, shame-based identity, principally because our parents, however inadvertently, too often transmitted the message that we weren’t good enough. Or at least that’s how it felt.
And if we’re afflicted with a fundamental sense of inferiority, inadequacy, or being hopelessly behind the curve, we seriously disadvantage ourselves. In fact, virtually all forms of therapy, each in its own way, strive to address this all-too-common malady.
If, for instance, our self-denigrating identity makes us anxious or afraid that others will want to reject us, we can develop an avoidant personality disorder. Unawares, we make ourselves miserable through a kind of lone-wolf social isolation.
If, on the other hand, our defenses prompt us to over-compensate for this so-deprecating sense of self, we can end up with a narcissistic personality disorder. And the egotistical, non-caring habit of exploiting and deceiving others ultimately will lead them to turn away from us through our eventually exhausting their credulity, goodwill, and patience.
Similarly, then, this defensive reaction also leads to communal or environmental alienation.
How Parental Abuse Can Slip Into Self-Inflicted Abuse
When we’re young—perhaps very young—it’s likely that no one person or thing can influence our thoughts and feelings as much as our immediate family. That’s why most therapists attempt to get us to reconsider the possibly questionable authority we couldn’t help but grant our parents (and perhaps siblings, too) for determining our self-worth.
Even when we’ve “completed” childhood, we don’t automatically extinguish our parents’ jurisdiction over us and claim it for our own. Yet unless we can effect this essential “transfer of power,” we can’t adopt a more favorable assessment of our basic value. That is, not so long as—subconsciously—our child self continues to dominate us, still ascribing ultimate authority to those we were so dependent on while under their custody.
Having to rely on our parents’ caretaking (such as it was) since we weren’t old enough—or resourceful enough—to care for ourselves, we felt compelled to submit to what seemed to be their negative evaluation of us.
We may have been subject to unrealistically lofty expectations, but given our knowledge back then, we couldn’t possibly have recognized such unfairness. So if we regularly experienced derogatory messages from them, we were forced to conclude that we just didn’t—and maybe could never—make the grade.
Tragically, one way children endeavor to get into a closer, more secure alignment with their parents is to adopt the same negative attitude toward themselves that they infer is held by their disapproving parents. This all-too-common emotional survival tactic reflects their desperate relational hope that their caretakers will, paradoxically, then be more inclined to accept them.
It’s somewhat akin to going along to get along—a matter of simple, unreflective adaptation. But its costs are considerable, for it involves sacrificing one’s authentic, self-affirming identity wholly to fit in better with one’s family.
Beyond this handicap, there are less direct forces that children face in their efforts to protect themselves from the apparent dangers of actualizing their true selves.
Other Sources That Can Culminate in a Burdened Self-Image
Richard Schwartz and Martha Sweezy, Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapists, elaborate on “burdens” passed on to us as children and how they negatively impact us as adults. In IFS terms, our inner system is embedded in various outer systems, and to transcend these adversely distorting forces, we must first become cognizant of them.
These authors distinguish between “personal burdens” and “legacy burdens.” The first set of constraints refers to specific, firsthand experiences generally thrust on us by our parents, which lead us to question our basic acceptability: “I’m a family hindrance/bad/worthless/unlovable."
More abstract legacy burdens represent messages we absorb from our society and culture. They may be firsthand, as in visited upon us by our parents’ biases. But they can also be secondhand since the origin of most of these parental beliefs—inherited and unexamined—are derived from generations before them.
As identified by Schwartz—the originator of IFS—and Sweezy, the four dominant legacy burdens are:
- Racism. Even if you believe that racism is morally culpable, it may unconsciously have been passed on to you. If so, your conscious disapproval of such prejudicial thinking won’t prevent it from closing your heart to others whom, unawares, you were somehow “educated” to discriminate against.
- Ethnicity. You can also feel uneasy, or threatened by, those of a different ethnicity. Although objectively, you’d view them as no less acceptable than anyone else, given how your natural identity was impinged upon, you may still hold back from welcoming their otherness.
- Patriarchy. No less deep-rooted is the powerful tendency to project your own imbibed shame onto others. Whether through (unrecognized) misogyny, homophobia, or transphobia, you’re unconsciously disposed to evaluate others negatively when they deviate (sexually or otherwise) from your implicit sense of what’s normal or societally sanctioned.
- Individualism. To Schwartz and Sweezy, our culture of competition and meritocracy also leads us, however unconsciously, to assume that if we’re not materially successful, we’re failures or "losers.” Regardless of your true values, when still affected by outdated childhood programs of survival, you can feel substantial pressure to accumulate wealth—and frown on those who don’t.
Moreover, such a materialistic orientation can’t help but lessen the curiosity, clarity, connection, and compassion you’d otherwise more likely show for those less monetarily fortunate. Just consider a recent survey of millennial first-year college students: 74.4 percent of those inventoried responded that amassing wealth represented their main lifetime goal (Landes, 2018).
The Price We Pay for Abiding Shame
Plainly these outer forces, to which we’re all subject, can’t ameliorate the elements of shame that may still linger within us. And to the degree that we’re all victims of negative childhood experiences—if only because of our parents’ regrettable psychological naivete or insensitivity—our exaggerated sense of vulnerability limits our capacity to live a life commensurate with our inborn nature.
We seek to escape the helpless vulnerability we experienced as children, for it’s associated with unattractiveness, weakness, and ineptitude. And we’re unaware that by shutting ourselves off from our former sense of impotence, we prevent ourselves from returning to it so that, at last, we can heal it.
Moreover, in evading some of the most vital parts of ourselves—interconnected with a sense of innocence, wonder, joyousness, adventure, and spontaneous play—we’re destined to live a life that keeps us from expressing the innate fullness of our being.
Instead, parts of us that link vulnerability to unacceptability cause us to act abusively toward ourselves. Unwittingly, we mirror the merely conditional acceptance offered to us by our parents. Secretly, we may even feel contempt for the more emotionally sensitive, vulnerable facets of our personality—as though, indeed, we actually deserved the abusive treatment received from them.
I’ll close this post on exploring the legacy of hidden shame by turning to Janina Fisher, whose excellent book on overcoming self-alienation is particularly applicable in this context. Her synopsis of the psychogenic ramifications of childhood trauma as it specifically pertains to self-shaming is well worth quoting:
Disowning one’s sad or lonely or needy parts, as well as angry, hypervigilant, or counterdependent parts, prevents self-acceptance and self-care, but it is safer. When the individual must adapt to an environment that punishes or ignores [their] basic needs and feelings, self-compassion ... becomes “dangerous.”
.... Alienation from self is often necessary, too, to maintain some semblance of attachment to grossly neglectful and abusive caretakers—an under-rated but important survival instinct when we are ... dependent on our caretakers. If the “good child” is distasteful to attachment figures, it can be more adaptive to disown the “good me” ... and identify with the bad, ashamed, disgusting child who doesn’t threaten [such] caretakers.
In these cases, we don’t—or can’t—resolve inner conflicts; we simply distance ourselves from them. And when that occurs, either we self-destructively “act out” through addictions or vengeful behaviors or “act in” through self-hatred, negative self-evaluation, or self-punishing rumination.
If you resonate with what’s been described here, possibly three of the most helpful therapies to try would be IFS, Polyvagal Therapy, or Real’s Relational Life Therapy—all of which tackle these prickly, longstanding issues head-on. To find a therapist near you, visit Psychology Today's Therapist Directory.
© 2023 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dana, D. (2018). The polyvagal theory in therapy. New York: W. W. Norton.
Fisher, J. (2017). Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors: Overcoming internal self-alienation. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Grp
Landes, L. (2018, Jun 20). Millennials want to be rich more than anything. https://www.consumerismcommentary.com/millennials-want-to-be-rich-more-…
Real, T. (2022). Us: Getting past you & me to build a more loving relationship. New York: Rodale Books.
Schwartz, R. C. & Sweezy, M. (2020). Internal Family Systems Therapy, 2nd Edition. New York: Guilford Press.
Seltzer, L. F. (2013, Sep 11). Surprise! Your defenses can make you MORE vulnerable. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201309/surpr…
Seltzer, L. F. (2017, Sep 13). “Never again!” The psychological fallout of trauma. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201709/never…