–by Janyne A. McConnaughey, Ph.D.
originally published June 21, 2017 on Janyne’s blog
I stood in the doorway. I was very small, maybe two. I was sucking on my two middle fingers and watching my mother in the kitchen. I was forbidden from entering. Then I did the unthinkable. I stepped over the imaginary line and asked for a cookie.
The response was not a positive one, but what strikes me most is how I felt as I stood in the doorway. It was the same feeling I always had when I needed and/or wanted some form of attention, but I didn’t know how to ask.
After one particularly difficult therapy session, my therapist prompted me to tell her what I felt I needed. Thinking about what I needed always sent me back to the kitchen doorway and I would become mute with fear as the hot wave of shame washed over me. One time, I knew my therapist was baking cookies for her family and I thought I should just ask for a cookie. That seemed odd, until the memory unfolded.
I didn’t even want a cookie. I wanted my mother to stop what she was doing, look at me, invite me in, and talk to me. I needed interpersonal connection. Instead, I received a reprimand for both entering the forbidden kitchen and asking for a cookie before mealtime.
Why did I misbehave? I did it because of the need for human connection. I suppose some would call the clear breaking of a set rule ‘rebellion,’ but all behavior is need-based in one way or another. My relationship with my mother was fraught with issues resulting from insecure attachment. This would have played an important role in this interaction. The overwhelming need for attention I felt in that doorway would eventually make me a target for a perpetrator. Sexual abuse is one of the unintended consequences of insecure attachment for many children.
The disapproval I experienced as a result of my need for attention had other unintended consequences. In my case, this was not an isolated incident; it was a pattern. Experiences like this occur occasionally in all parenting relationships. We all have busy parenting moments, but when at our very best, we go back and hug our children (young and adult) because we realize they just needed attention and we hurt them. This is how our children develop trust. No parent is perfect. Children learn to trust parents when relationships are restored. When parents accept and confess their role in the incident, children not only learn to acknowledge their own humanness but they also learn how to mend relationships.
When restoration doesn’t occur (as a pattern in the parent-child dynamic), children are powerless to understand the incidents were the parent’s fault and not theirs. Since these incidents occur because of basic human needs, children perceive the need as inappropriate. If something so basic to whom they are is inappropriate, then something must be wrong with them. Thus, when rebuffed, ignored, punished, or shamed, who they are becomes unacceptable. This binds the feeling of shame to the basic human need for attention.
It is of utmost importance to help children understand there is nothing wrong with needing attention. Without this affirmation, children internalize shame by feeling there is something horribly wrong with them. This Internalized shame can then become activated any time the basic need for attention is felt and grow into the adult self-hatred for feeling needy. This shame for being needy is inherent in our society and neediness is rejected as socially unacceptable.
Since I had already internalized shame for needing attention, the sexual abuse I experienced when I was three imbedded shame very deeply and caused me, as a very small child, to feel responsible for my own abuse. It seemed the abuse happened because of who I was. I was needy. My attention-seeking behaviors, adapted because my needs were not being met, caused me to be vulnerable. It is easy to understand why I felt responsible. I believed I was abused because I wanted to play blocks with the man I trusted in the day care. This misconception concerning responsibility was reinforced throughout my life. Many tragic adult stories can be traced back to unmet childhood needs that became internalized with layers of shame.
During the first months of therapy, I almost drowned in what I symbolically described as a dark frightening whirlpool. If it took me under, I would find myself immersed in a horrible darkness of what seemed like bile water. There were boxes bumping up against me and I was desperate to distance myself from them. I would eventually understand the boxes were repressed memories floating in my personal Lake of Shame.
It slowly became clear that most of my anxiety and dissociative coping mechanisms were designed to keep me from falling into the whirlpool of shame. We all have pockets of shame we try to avoid, but mine were immense. The easiest way for me to fall headfirst into the dark abyss was to feel needy. It was a cycle: Felt need, shame for need, inability to meet my own need, increased shame for need, paralyzing effects of shame blocking self care, increased need, more shame—on and on until I felt into my darkest, most fearful mental anguish.
Feeling needy found its final expression in my dependence on my therapist who understood the source as shame-based. She kept me from drowning for two years. I remember the day I decided, if I were going to heal, I would have to fall into the whirlpool of neediness. I made a conscious choice to need my therapist and together we began to rewire my brain. Her acceptance of my basic human needs slowly began to develop trust as we worked to heal the painful memories intertwined with shame.
I never fully understood my conflicted feeling of neediness until I found my small-child self standing in the kitchen doorway. I could not clearly ‘see’ her until all of the layers piled on top of her were removed—I didn’t find her until my very last (or what I believe at this point to be my last) therapy session. The turmoil of needing attention but fearing being shamed for that need held me prisoner for 60 years. The abuse froze this child inside of me and prevented me from ever processing and finding ways to meet my own needs. I was destined to always be dependent on others. Finding my small self in the doorway and realizing she simply needed attention was the key to learning to care for myself when the feelings of neediness surfaced.
The unintended consequences of the shaming of my feelings and basic needs were astounding. As an adult, I eventually learned to hide and control this part of me I always believed was defective. I entered therapy knowing my exquisite controls were coming apart. There I met unconditional acceptance as what I perceived as my ‘needy’ inner child ran through my healing process without restraint. As a result of unconditional acceptance, I slowly became less panic-stricken when asked what I needed. I even occasionally found enough strength to voice a need. Then I began to learn I was no longer a powerless small child and could find ways to meet my own needs. Once I no longer hated the small child with basic human needs deep inside of me, this became possible. With healing, I believe I will no longer find myself standing in the kitchen doorway—and I understand a cookie is not the answer (thankfully since I ate A LOT of cookies as I processed this!) I now can recognize the whirlpool, know the memories have been healed, and unfreeze my problem solving strategies to find ways to meet my own needs.
The gift I have been given as a result of this journey is one of utmost empathy for adults who are trapped by the shame of feeling needy. I hear it in apologies for bothering me. I see in in the determination to control behavior, be perfect, and live above/ignore feelings (which only causes anxiety). I want to cry when the pain is expressed as a spiritual problem. I feel the relief when I say isn’t their fault. I sense the empowerment as they realize the feelings are part of a hurting child inside of them. I smile when I begin to see them loving the inner child they have ignored and/or hated for so long as the ‘needy’ part of them. I cheer when some realize there is unresolved pain and courageously begin therapy. Their steps toward healing are a beautiful thing!
In our busy world, there are so many unintended consequences. We aren’t perfect. Despite our failures, we can help the children and adults around us know their needs are not shameful, their feelings are important, and our relationship with them is a gift we treasure. We can help each other be freed from the shame we have gathered for simply being a human child and needing someone to care about us.
(My understanding of the effects of shame has been a long and intense journey. One invaluable resource has been the book, Shame: The Power of Caring, by Gershen Kaufman, which helped me understand this incident and many others.)