Recently, when I told her I was going out for a walk my 16-year-old daughter replied, “Okay, bring me something from Starbucks please.” My immediate response was a half-smile with an audible exhale and an eye-roll. Whenever I leave the house, no matter where I’m going or what the time of day, my daughter asks me to bring her something from Starbucks. It is wearing. Tiresome. I often wonder (occasionally aloud) if she recognizes me as her parent or if she sees me in merely a transactional way – like Santa Claus or one of the other compulsory giving fairies.
With my exhale complete and my eyes returned to their primary position, I looked ahead at my child and saw her shrink in a way that I have seen hundreds of times but never truly witnessed. This time it spoke to my soul. She was conveying a sort of visceral apology – regret that had little to do with her request for a drink and more for the fact of her being.
In that moment, I understood that my daughter’s incessant need for Starbucks has never been about a craving for caffeine.
It has never been about a desire for anything material at all. It is about the need to stay connected. My daughter was asking me not to forget about her, not to leave her behind. The drink was an artifice. In my eye-roll, she felt the severing of her lifeline. She was asking for what she needed most in the world and in my response, she heard that she didn’t matter.
What I had witnessed was an embodiment of shame. Shrinking is an expression of shame. Shame is a reflection of the psychic imprint formed when the earliest connection is severed. It is not self-pity. It is not self-centeredness. It is not overdependence or neediness or the expression of a pathological process.
Shame is a distress state. It emerges as an internal narrative that whispers in the penumbras of awareness. It tells of unworthiness, essential badness, worthlessness, irrelevance. For many adopted children, it is experienced as a pervasive sense of unwantedness or an absence of belonging. There is shame in being.
For some, it never comes forward in conscious thought. For others it is a dogged force. For most, it is an ancient scar that surfaces from time to time in the rhythms of relationship. There are many reminders that brush up against the pain, but like no other experience, loss calls it screaming to the fore. It hurts most to be left behind, because being left is where the wound of unwantedness was first inflicted.
Every goodbye is a loss.
Whether it is the mourning of a life that has passed, the celebration of a milestone, the premature click at the other end of a phone, or a parent going out for a walk, loss is a reminder of having been left. For those so affected, it triggers a physiological cascade. My daughter’s shrinking was a reaction to a perceived loss and to the shame she felt at asking for something she needed.
She wanted to be seen, to have her beingness acknowledged. She needed to know that she mattered. When she asked for a drink knowing that I wasn’t going out for drinks, all I heard was my child calling for more. I felt my own sense of insufficiency. I felt resentment that I couldn’t leave for even an hour without taking along the heaviness of my children’s unmet needs. When I dismissed her request, all she heard was the person she needs the most telling her that she was too much.
The one-sided conversations we have in our heads are not necessarily reflections of reality.
They are representations of how triggered we are in the moment (i.e., an indication of our relative state of nervous system arousal). As living organisms, we are beholden to our neurobiology and in that moment, mine was telling me to flee, while hers was telling her to fold. Our respective fear radar was on alert and both of us were in survival mode.
Because I had been struck with a lightning bolt of insight, I was able to pause my frustration and address what was happening between us. “I think I finally get it!! …You’re not asking for a drink. You want to know that I’m going to think about you while I’m out – that I’m not going to forget you. You want to know that we’re connected…Is that right? Am I close?” I felt like I had just decoded a dead language. I was a little impressed with myself, but I needed her to validate my findings. The tears in her eyes told me that I had gotten the message.
It can be hard to meet our children from a place of dispassion. It is enormously difficult to step away from our own emotion especially when we are feeling depleted. We want our children to tell us what they need in short, simple, clear phrases so that we can respond efficiently and effectively. We need them to speak clearly, because we want to get it right. We need to feel like we are parenting well.
Shame and fear intimidate clarity of expression.
Children who experience shame have a difficult time asking for what they need. They express themselves through subterfuge, manipulation, challenging behavior. The message is almost always the same. They are asking for connection. They are asking to be recognized. They are asking not to be left behind. In so doing, no matter how they do it, they are risking the rejection they most fear.
We may tire of the behavioral artifice, but through their behavior, our children are risking everything to tell us what they need. The behavior we show in return resonates in their beingness and becomes their inner voice. Affirmation doesn’t always take a lot. Between my daughter and me, mocha Frappuccino has become a code phrase for being, belonging, and the essential healing of connectedness.