Shame: A Perfect Storm

Where does my perfectionism come from? I’m going to attempt to answer this question. In order to do so, I need to reflect on early childhood. I grew up in a strict, Irish Catholic family. My mother and father were a bit more liberal than my extended family, but their reach was still impactful. We went to church every Sunday. I made all my sacraments and often got lectured by my aunts and uncles on the teachings of the Bible.

Now let me go way back. I’ve been told that my father was drinking heavily when I was first born. He’s what society would call an alcoholic. I identify him as an addict. He has the disease of addiction and his obsessive compulsive alcohol use is simply a symptom of the disease. Anyway, he was drinking heavily and my mother, being young when I was born (22), had enough. She took me to my grandparent’s house and threatened to leave my father unless he got sober. So he went to AA because he didn’t want to lose his family. My mother tells me that he got sober for two years. But he didn’t work a program. He wouldn’t speak at meetings. He didn’t work the steps. He was afraid of opening up. He wasn’t recovering, only abstinent. But my mom always swore that those were the best two years of their marriage. He was present. He was a husband. He was my father.

I often wonder how this experience affected me as an infant. Is it possible for a child to be affected on a deep subconscious level, even before he or she is capable of really processing what is happening? There is research that suggests young children, even infants, are highly receptive to their surroundings. I often wonder just what was internalized by the turmoil that I experienced. I think of the yelling. I think of the human voice  and how it gives away everything. I think of the tears and the car ride to my grandparents. One of my earliest memories though, is of my father. I remember being tossed playfully into the air. He would toss me up with his construction worker hands and catch me as I laughed hysterically. I must have been under two years old. Perhaps this was when he was sober. The image of that father is long gone now. It only lingers here in my distant memory. Even as I write this now, over 25 years later, he still struggles with his addiction.

So what does all of this have to do with my perfectionism? Many of my struggles have to do with anxiety. If traced back far enough, the root causes for my anxiety can be found in my childhood. Maybe I sensed, even as an infant, that my world was unstable. Maybe I somehow picked up on the sickness that would later destroy my family unit. But regardless of the early forces at work, I had a healthy and joyful childhood. I was the kid who’d run up, without shame, to any stranger at the supermarket to tell you his name and what he did earlier that morning, my mother standing by, half embarrassed, half entertained. I was the kid who’d start breakdancing in the middle of the town carnival at five years old. No shame. But sometimes the surface of the lake is deceiving.

Shame is a big part of my story. I used to describe myself as an overly sensitive kid. I described my weirdness as a heightened sensitivity to life. I cried really easily. My feelings got hurt often, sometimes over nothing. It seems I was prone to shame. Is this because of my Catholic background? Is this because I was taught that masturbation was a sin? Is this because I came from a family that didn’t talk about feelings openly? Maybe it has more to do with my grandmother.

Nanny died when I was four years old. I read somewhere that the human mind can’t comprehend death until six, but something was carved out of me then. She was the bedrock. She was where my mother took us when my father’s drinking got bad all those years ago. She was the constant in a world full of variables. She made the world safe for us. When she died, I asked my mom, “Do you think if I set myself on fire I can go to heaven to see Nanny?” This would be a precursor to my teenage years. When this caretaker suddenly vacated my life, I internalized shame and guilt. The result was anxiety, because I didn’t want anyone else to leave.

My childhood was a perfect storm of shame and anxiety. So how does someone process and cope with loss and instability at a young age? Tell  yourself: “Don’t make any mistakes. If you do, they’ll leave. If you mess up, the family will fall apart. Remember, you are the one who as a toddler, used to bump your parents heads together when they fought. You are the glue. If you make a mistake, everything shatters. Don’t sin either. God is always watching.” What pressure!

To my toddler self (and to my current self): It’s not your fault. You don’t need to be perfect. No one is.

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One comment

  1. shehneen · · Reply

    Dear Brian, I found your teaching and writing today. On so many levels, thank you for sharing.

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