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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

The Legacy of an Unloving Childhood

What happens to a child who is not loved properly? The answer one might expect is that they start to hate the person who doesn’t give them the love they need. Far from it. The reality is that the child becomes filled with shame.

Photo by Katherine Chase on Unsplash

What is shame? A sense that one is profoundly unworthy, dirty, soiled, sinful, ugly, embarrassing – and also, in danger; a fit subject of attack and ridicule by strangers. The child is unable to redirect the blame outward: it does not ask: ‘What is wrong with my parents for not loving me adequately?’ It simply wonders in a forlorn way: ‘What have I done wrong in order to have ended up on the receiving end of my parent’s disapproval?’ A primitive fear of abandonment kicks in. The child prefers to attack itself for being bad than to confront a yet more awful possibility: that it is entirely dependent for its well-being on inadequate and unkind parental figures.

The child searches assiduously for explanations for the lack of love it has to endure – and comes to all the wrong answers. It might conclude: ‘I have not been impressive enough.’ And therefore it may undertake enormous efforts to prove to itself and harsh outsiders that it does – nevertheless – deserve to exist. At school, it might try seven times as hard as any other child to show that it is clever and ‘good’. Later on, the shamed child might turn into the over-achieving adult who works relentlessly for money and status in order to escape appalling feelings of being invisible. Or else, the child may go down an anti-social route and graffiti the nearby underpass, as a desperate way of giving outward form to a feeling of badness it is tortured by inside.

There is so sadly no way out from the burden of shame available either by trying to be extremely good – or extremely bad. The only solution is to work against the grain of forgetting in order to perceive, for the first time, an awful possibility that one could never perceive as a child: that one has done nothing wrong at all, that wrong was done to one.

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