Shame & Self-Doubt Are a Family Affair

I was meeting with a mom the other week and we were talking about the challenges she has setting limits with her kids and addressing critical personal and parenting issues with her husband.

Needless to say, she and her husband Joe are often in a Negative Cycle, and they and their kids are often in a Control Battle.

As I’ve described in previous blog posts, Negative Cycles are self-reinforcing negative relationship patterns that couples can find themselves in. As you would imagine, they seriously limit relationship health and intimacy.

Control Battles are self-reinforcing negative relationship patterns that parents and kids can develop. They have a destructive impact on child and adolescent development as well as on parental mental health.

Control Battles have a destructive impact on adolescent development and parental mental health.Click To Tweet

Now this mom, Kim, is…

  • smart,
  • competent
  • and knowledgeable…

…and yet doubts herself continually.

When she sets a limit with her daughter and her daughter objects, she doubts herself and backs off.

When Kim’s husband acts in ways that are hurtful, she wonders what she did to cause it, and what she needs to do differently to fix it.

At one level, she knows that what she does as a wife and mother is just fine.

But she just can’t shake her self-doubt.

In fact, Kim is consumed with self-doubt.

Every limit she wants to set and every decision she wants to make gets interference from her self-doubt.

And this takes place only in her personal life.

In her professional life, she gets only excellent feedback and is looked upon as an expert in her field.

How can such a bright capable, well-informed woman be so consumed with self-doubt?

Kim: I have to tell you, Neil… I’ve been like this my whole life. I spend hours wondering how I’m supposed to be and trying to understand others. I wear myself out.

So let’s look at:

  1. how Kim’s self-doubt got planted,
  2. how she’s passing it on to her kids,
  3. and how she can end it.

Growing Up In a Chronic State of High Alert

Kim grew up in a family with a harsh father and an accommodating mother.

Her older brother clashed regularly with her father and he grew up with significant substance abuse issues.

Kim wanted no part of the struggles her brother went through, and she loved and worried about her mother.

As a little girl, Kim focused on:

  1. Where is the danger today?
  2. What do I need to do to make Mom happy?
  3. What do I need to do to please others?

She grew up in a chronic state of high alertalways looking for the next threat — trying always to make others happy.

She internalized the idea that the world is a dangerous place, that life is not and will not be about our emotional needs.

They are not important.

When a child learns their needs are not important, they conclude they are not important.Click To Tweet

And these negative beliefs about ourselves — that we gain as children — become an internal reality. Psychotherapists call this shame or unworthiness and these internal beliefs follow us into adulthood.

So Kim’s way of coping with her internal message was to always behave herself, serve others, and not make waves.

And like other sensitive adults who are shame-based, she now lives with self-doubt.

Paired with a Shame-Based Spouse

How is Kim passing her shame and self-doubt on to the next generation?

First of all, she married Joe — who is shame-based as well.

Unlike Kim, Joe is not sensitive to his own or other people’s feelings. His way of coping as a child was to push his own and other people’s feelings away and focus on being strong and winning. So Joe is gruff by nature and avoids any discussion of feelings.

His way of coping as a child was to not acknowledge personal problems, stay busy, and win at all costs.

His way of interacting in any area of conflict now is to become defensive and try to get his way.

If that fails, he simply walks away.

So with their kids, Joe is not validating of their feelings and needs, leaving them with the idea that their feelings and needs are simply not important. They learned that doing only what their father wants them to do is what’s important.

There are good elements to Joe’s parenting as well.

For example, Joe spends time with his kids, does fun activities with them, and shows them how to do things. It’s just that when it comes to feelings, he is invalidating.

And how does Kim pass shame and doubt on to her kids?

She does not validate their needs and feelings either.

When they want something they cannot have, rather than…

  • be empathetic,
  • validate their feelings,
  • and still let them know the limit…

her self-doubt engages and she equivocates and focuses on the yes or the no to their requests.

If Kim would only let them know that she understands their feelings and their wants, she would be validating them at an emotional level.

And that’s what kids really need.

Getting what they want is sometimes yes and sometimes no, and that’s life.

But in either case, kids want their parents to know their feelings, and care about their feelings. But because she has shame, Kim goes into self-doubt and gets confused because what she has learned to do is to please others.

And in many cases she can’t and shouldn’t please her kids… validate? Yes. Please? No.

So I’m sure you’re asking now,

“Okay… we get this, but what’s Kim to do? What can any of us who have shame and self-doubt do to heal ourselves and not pass our shame and self-doubt on to our children?”

The answer to that question is a book, not half a blog post — but lets take a look because the formula to heal the shame and self-doubt is surprisingly simple.

It’s the hard work and commitment to change that’s challenging.

Yet, good initial results and getting oneself on the path to self-regard and self-confidence can happen in a relatively short time.

Switching from the Old Narrative

The solution lies in switching from the old negative narrative that we learned in childhood to a…

  • healthy,
  • more appropriate,
  • and self-valuing narrative now.

When we were children, we had no choice but to learn what we were taught, and if we were taught that our needs and feelings weren’t important, that’s all we knew.

When we were children, we had no choice but to learn what we were taught.Click To Tweet

Now as adults, we can realize that the messages we got back then were about our families, our parents, and sometimes our communities and schools.

The messages were really not about us.

Now as adults, we can look at ourselves more objectively.

We are no longer dependent on our parents to define us.

We can look at the evidence.

In Kim’s case, she’s an:

  • intelligent,
  • competent,
  • engaging,
  • positive woman…

…with good values.

And when she trusts herself, she displays good judgment.

She has many good friends who are also good and successful women, and strong professional relationships with others in her field.

The evidence is in…


So how can she get from her old and negative message to a new and healthy one?

Here is a technique that I use with my clients:

Let’s think of it this way.

You might have a wonderful, high-powered computer, but if it has an old and limiting operating system, it won’t perform up to its capacity. A computer can’t do anything its operating system won’t allow. In order to get it up to its potential, you’ll need to upgrade its OS.

Let’s think of the message regarding our self-worth that we carry inside of us as our operating system. The message we internalized as kids is OS 1.0. If OS 1.0 has negative elements, we will need to rewrite the message and upgrade to OS 2.0.

Kim’s operating system is outdated.

She’s running on OS 1.0 which tells her that she isn’t important. And that what she needs to do to be safe and loved is to ignore her own needs and make sure everyone else’s are met.

That’s a pretty limiting message even though it did get her pretty far.

What Kim can do now is start to run her life on her new operating system… her OS 2.0.

An operating system that says,

“Who you are, including your thoughts and feelings, are valid and your judgment is excellent. Trust yourself, set your limits in kind and thoughtful ways, say what you need. And when others are unhappy with your limits, that’s okay. They still love you and will respect you even more. You don’t have to pretend to be worthy. You are worthy!”

  1. So the first step is for Kim to write her new OS.
  2. Her second step is to become aware of which operating system she is using. Are her thoughts and actions OS 1.0 or OS 2.0?
  3. Thirdly, she can begin to replace OS 1.0 thoughts and behaviors with OS 2.0 thoughts and behaviors.

For instance, she might think,

“I hope Joe is in a good mood when he comes home tonight. What should I do now, so he won’t be critical when he walks in the door?”

Then she can recognize this as her mind operating on OS 1.0 by default. She can then replace that thought with 2.0 thinking.

For instance,

“What is my mood and what do I need to do for myself to feel good? Joe is an adult who is responsible for managing his own feelings.”

The trick for Kim is to identify old thinking, where making everyone else happy is the goal, and replace it with new thinking… just being herself and trusting her own judgment.

If the kids or Joe are mad at her, OS 1.0 thinking would throw her into self-doubt.

Using OS 2.0 thinking, she would simply acknowledge their feelings and be confident in her boundaries and her judgment.

So… yes! Shame and self-doubt are a family affair.

We get it from our parents, like they got it from theirs, and we pass it on to our kids.

Yet we can take steps to end it.

We can take steps to end our shame and self-doubt.Click To Tweet

So to give the gift of self-confidence, we need to start by developing it for ourselves:

  • Identify your limiting OS 1.0,
  • Write your 2.0, and
  • Practice living it every day.

And remember, even if you carry some shame and doubt — and you aren’t perfect at setting clear limits and validating feelings — I’ll bet you’re doing it in your family a heck of a lot better than your parents were able to do it for you.

So celebrate your successes and keep fighting the good fight.

And remember…


Posted in Families.