In the first session of psychotherapy during an assessment, I ask each patient about his or her family of origin, first using a very vague question: “Tell me about who raised you and what your childhood was like.” I use this very broad, open-ended statement purposely. The patient’s first responses are often very revealing, even if they are not actually very revealing in their depth or content.
When I ask a new patient about their childhood or to describe their parents and they use very superficial or brief descriptions (“fine,” “nice,” “average”), this can be telling just because of the lack of content. These descriptions show a limited insight into the parents’ real flaws and imperfections or a fear of discussing those flaws, giving me a big red flag about the behavior of their parents.
Certainly, a person’s childhood might have been “fine,” which is wonderful, if it’s true. But all parents and families have quirks (at the very least!), and an inability to discuss personality differences, parenting mistakes, or character flaws is telling.
Psychologists often note that a fear of confronting parents is due to the natural biological attachment needs of children, who are dependent on parents for life-giving care. Kids fear challenging parents for very understandable primal reasons: “If I behave in ways that are unlovable, my parents may not protect me, feed me, or love me.” This is a healthy characteristic of shame, a pro-social emotion that encourages us to behave in likable ways so that others like us and want to be in relationships with us.
However powerful that survival instinct may be, I’d suggest another reason people may find it difficult to tolerate an honest discussion of parental faults.
Perhaps as children, these people learned that their parents could not tolerate criticism. They may have watched parents lash out in defensive anger when questioned, freeze others out to avoid blame, lie, excuse and justify their inappropriate actions, or be self-blaming when confronted with feelings of inadequacy. This teaches the child that the parent cannot handle honest feedback.
So then, when they come to therapy, this shows up as a reluctance to honestly acknowledge faults of their parents or family functioning.
This is especially true of children of Other-Blamers or “narcissistic” parents. Children are trained through large and small daily repetitions to be highly attuned to the emotional needs of their parents. They quickly learn what angers or disappoints or pleases mom and dad and generally attempt to behavior in ways that get a positive response. If mom and dad are highly fearful of and reactive to shame, criticism or accountability, the child learns that mom or dad “can’t handle the truth” (to quote a movie line), and so they don’t bring up the truth — even if that truth is that the parent is harming the child.
In therapy with an adult who experienced a parent with poor shame tolerance, this can show up as a reluctance to criticize the parents.
This lack of insight can stem from a family dynamic that communicates through a parent’s behaviors: “We don’t talk about flaws because that makes me uncomfortable.” Or, worse, “You’d better not talk about my flaws or I won’t love you anymore.”
Poor shame tolerance in a parent teaches the child to be on the lookout to avoid “shaming” the parent. Even if that “shame” comes in the form of normal, appropriate boundary setting and feedback.
The child learns to put the needs of the parent first, because it is the job of the child to protect the parent’s tender psyche from possible feelings of inadequacy. This additionally communicates to a child that she is not worthy of being important to the parent, leading to a deep sense of unlovability and inadequacy.
The lesson for parents is that managing your own shame tolerance is essential to helping your child to an emotionally healthy adulthood. This can be as simple as admitting fault and apologizing, admitting you don’t know something, or asking for help.
I find that shame is a difficult emotion for many people to experience because it triggers fears of unworthiness that can be linked to exclusion and rejection — big primal worries for us as social animals.
But when this primal experience is layered over and over with messages and modeling from parents that normal experiences of failure and inadequacy are shameful, this teaches many unhealthy lessons. It may lead to the child repeating this poor shame tolerance, which is evident in blame-shifting behaviors of Other-Blaming, Self-Blaming, or Blame Avoiding that, if not corrected, can follow her for a lifetime. In some cases I have seen, it translates into severe social phobia and anxiety, because the child, now an adult, has engrained a fear of any honest communication with others because of the over-reactive anger from a parent.