The problem of blaming the parents remains a very difficult one for psychotherapists and patients because our need to be loyal to our parents naturally leads us to lay the responsibility for our problems on some essential flaw within us. But the fact is that though parents try to do their best, they may not provide the necessary emotional connections, support, or nurturing we need and as a result may unintentionally harm us. Most parents are doing what they know and what they learned from their own parents, who might have been very limited in their emotional resources and even abusive. When we can understand that a series of negative experiences is what has created our negative self-image, we can eventually build a true sense of who we are. Not that we must reject or even confront our parents, but in accepting them as human beings we humanize them and ourselves.
To develop emotional health we need to understand that self-blaming and the shame it causes can be toxic to us and to our relationships. The key point in looking at the role our caretakers played in our identity formation, or the lack of it, is not to blame them or use them to excuse our behavior, but simply to see clearly how they affected us. Understanding our history not only helps us alleviate self-blame, criticism, depression, anxiety, and violence, but also provides important insights into the workings of our present intimate relationships.
Whatever we do not understand about ourselves and our past will be transported into our present. If we deny our essential wounds, they will surface without our knowledge and drive a wedge into our relationships with others. Our understanding of what has shaped us allows us to make contact with the love that lies just beneath. Understanding what we feel, want, and need makes it more possible to be intimate with our mate. This awareness allows us to distinguish between ourselves and our mate so when disputes do arise we can understand what our contribution to the problem actually is.
When psychologists ponder the psyche, they are most interested in studying the causes of sychological conflicts and what promotes healing. Their main focus is on what it means to be healthy, and specifically what may be preventing people from actualizing their potential or their true selves. The reason we look to family and childhood as a basis for psychological health is that children spend so much time with their parents and siblings when they are the most sensitive, dependent, and vulnerable. If we can take the negative out of blame and connect the cause with the effect, then we shift from self-blaming to a cause-and-effect reality that’s based on the experiences that have made us the way we are.
Leon Wurmser writes in his classic study The Mask of Shame that the child is an “omnipotent masochist” because he feels responsible for causing his own pain. If his parents were cold and withholding, he experiences this as “I am inadequate and unlovable.” If his parents were angry and rejecting, he believes that he is bad and useless. If his parents punished him for being angry or left him alone, he will be forced to hold in his anger and direct it at himself in a quest for perfection and redemption in his parents’ eyes. If his parents were fragile and he happens to be angry, this fragility might cause him to withhold his anger or deny it altogether.
In an article in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Gershen Kaufman writes, “Even though the aftermath of shame can be severe, the way to a self-affirming identity yet lies in the deeply human capacity to be fully restored, in the knowledge that one individual can restore the interpersonal bridge with another however late it may be and in the awareness that human relationships are reparable. Through such restoring of the bridge, shame is transcended.” These wise lines express the central theme of what it means to be human. When we experience concern, interest, and caring, we’re affected positively, and this is what restores our true nature. If it’s uncaring people who inflict wounds, then we need loving people to heal them. In this process we see what love and care from others means to our lives and for our very soul.