Good friends of ours recently became grandparents; hearing them talk about the baby — that brand new life, a blank slate where anything and everything seems possible — took me back 20 years or so, to the day when my first child came forth into this world. I was not one of those parents who instantly fell in love with his newborn the second it popped out; but not long after that day, I felt overwhelmed with that love nobody can prepare you for. William was born toward the end of May, and that Christmas, at a holiday party for my institute, I went around with a pocketful of photographs, foisting them upon anyone who made the mistake of asking, “How’s the baby?” I was besotted.
To me, he was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen. Literally. While I had some objective awareness that perhaps this wasn’t true, I nonetheless felt it, as so many parents have done in their turn. I think adoring your baby is a crucial experience for both parent and child, a critical stage that helps the parents cope with the deprivations of child-rearing and plants the seeds from which self-esteem will later develop in the child. I believe it’s crucial for the growing baby to feel that he or she is beautiful to the parents; the experience of being adored determines, in large part, what it feels like to be “you” or “me” in this world — whether we feel self-confident and capable or riddled with self-doubt and shame.
When parents do not adore their babies and don’t find them beautiful (for whatever reason), it instead plants the seeds of shame. One of the ways that people often describe profound shame is a sense that they are somehow “ugly” inside — deformed or unlovable. I believe this lasting sense of inner ugliness takes root in infancy, when the need to be adored is not met. Perhaps the mother and father are overwhelmed by parenthood; maybe they’re the kind of narcissistic people who can’t really see others as separate people with internal needs of their own. Maybe a life tragedy (the death of a close relative) occurred close in time to the birth and the new parents are in mourning. For whatever reason, if the parents don’t idealize their baby, that experience will shape the child’s sense of self for the rest of his or her life.
I’ve been discussing this with one of my long-term clients, Janice, who will soon be ending treatment. Throughout our work together, Janice’s mother has been a problematic figure, one who largely failed in parenting. Most of our sessions dealing with the mother have involved anger or disappointment, and some grieving about the mother that never was. Lately, Janice has come to realize how beautiful she found her mother, in spite of everything. I think this is natural. Babies tend to find their mothers beautiful; and if the mothers don’t reciprocate, it is devastating, unbearably painful. My client’s mother, we both feel sure, did not find her beautiful. This experience lies at the core of Janice’s shame, and the types of narcissistic behavior she relied upon to hide from it.
Nothing can make up for that unmet need. Nothing. I do not believe in the so-called “corrective emotional experience,” although long-term therapy with someone who understands and cares deeply about you can help mitigate the damage. Marriage or a lasting relationship with someone who truly loves you definitely helps. With a lot of work, you might eventually come to feel that your shame is bearable and doesn’t erase all the other good things about you; you might find that shame and authentic self-esteem are compatible. But nothing will ever make you be like other people whose mothers and fathers adored them.
I know this from personal experience. My own mother did not find me beautiful — of this I feel certain. I understand what profound shame feels like; on the other hand, I also feel good about myself, proud of my children, proud of the work I do and of this website that I write. That’s what true shame healing means, the only healing of shame I believe in.
Of course, parents eventually need to stop idealizing their children, just as children at some point need to stop idealizing their parents so that they (the children) can become autonomous. If parents continue to idealize their children as they grow up, the children don’t develop a more realistic sense of who they are; they become a narcissistic extension of the parents’ identity, something they (the parents) can use to prove that they’re winners and not losers. I call it “competitive parenting” and I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. Children of such parents do not feel truly beautiful inside; instead, they feel they must live up to some false version of themselves that will satisfy their parents’ narcissism. More on that subject another day.
In closing, I’d like to share the video clip below. Some of you may be familiar with it already — the “still face” study. While this experiment focuses on interpersonal communication between mother and child — the need for social interaction — to me it also speaks to the damage that can occur when the mother doesn’t idealize her baby. In the first part of the video, this mother clearly adores her baby and the baby feels that she is adored. In the second part, you can see how painful it is to the baby not to receive the adoring smiles. Go through that experience repeatedly and you’re left with the sense of internal “ugliness” that lies at the heart of shame. I find it interesting that Dr. Tronick repeatedly uses the world “ugly” toward the end of the video.
And the dead-face mother — that was my mom.