Leah’s gaze was distant and fixed when her eyes turned soft and began to pool with tears.
“Where are you?” I whispered. “I don’t know—maybe I am crazy, like she said. How could I do that?” Her voice trailed off and she wiped the tears from her face. “She’s right. I can be very flirtatious.”
Two days earlier, Leah had made a decision to confront her mother about her father’s sexual advances toward her when she was a child. Much to Leah’s surprise, her mother acknowledged the inap- propriate behavior but went on to say that it was Leah’s own sexual advances toward her father that had both parents and “others in the family” concerned. This exchange led Leah to fall into a panic and retreat to her bedroom closet, much like she did as a child.
Leah had not previously waivered about her childhood memories. In fact, as an adult, Leah had made significant advances in setting boundaries with her father. So when she confronted her mother, she had not imagined that she would begin to doubt her own reality. Now, just two days later in my office, Leah sat questioning herself and feeling guilty for having accused her father. The fact that Leah was feeling “crazy” was painful to observe but understandable.
Is It Just Me?
Labeling a behavior as “crazy” is a particularly destructive form of emotional abuse that makes you question your reality and intuition. It is almost always present in rigid and shame-based family systems, although any system, whether family, work, religious, or political, can foster and encourage this behavior.
Consider the fable The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen.
As the fable is written, an emperor hires two con men who promise to sew him the finest suit of clothes. They allege that their magi- cal material will be invisible to anyone who is incompetent, unfit or otherwise “extraordinarily simple in character”. The emperor jumps at this opportunity to show off such splendor fit only for such a wise and special being.
When the “weavers” complete their task, they summon the emperor. Having waited for this very moment, the emperor arrives and is astonished when he cannot see his suit at all! Because he fears himself incompetent and foolish, he professes his approval of the fine robes and carries on with his self-adoration.
The next day, the emperor walks in a grand procession. The townspeople cheer and “marvel” at the emperor’s new clothes, for they are too afraid to admit that they see nothing. This fakery is ultimately exposed when a young child, unafraid to speak the truth, has the courage to yell, “He’s naked!”
Leah’s challenge to the family system is no different than the lone voice of the child who challenges the town’s collusion to support the emperor’s denial.
So how does a family system grow to become dysfunctional and continue in that state of denial? To understand, one must explore the origins of the parent-as-child.
Our Shame Core
When a child’s emotional needs are not met, he or she will experi- ence shame by way of abandonment. If that emotional neglect endures, then the child will ultimately internalize that shame, along with any unresolved loneliness, pain, and fear. In the presence of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, the child will develop a level of toxic shame that remains a defining element of his or her inner self. Should the child not address or successfully challenge the shame core, he or she will carry that shame core into adulthood and, in turn, pass it along to the next generation, where the cycle begins anew.
Murray Bowen, an early pioneer of family systems theory, dubbed this process the multigenerational transmission process. He theo- rized that the levels of differentiation between family members will become successively less functional from one generation to the next if the system or parts therein are not treated.
Dysfunctional family systems such as these not only become rigid and enmeshed, but emotionally disconnected as well. As a result, all covert or overt messages, implicit or explicit, govern and defend the family system from shame of exposure.
I shared the fable of the emperor with Leah in the hopes that she would make the metaphorical connection to her own family’s abusive collusion. Like Leah, many individuals who confront the family system experience pain, fear, loneliness, anger, guilt and shame. With the help of a healthy and objective support system, an individual can successfully break through the denial and remain focused on self-validation and inner growth.
Leah continued her therapeutic work, committed to individuating from the family system and giving herself permission to experi- ence her own reality. When she voiced her solid confidence in a particular truth, I encouraged her to put that truth in writing so she could refer back to it in times of confusion brought on by conflict- ing family perspectives. By so doing, she could remain resolute in her reality. She learned to consult with others for “reality checks” so as to develop a new trust in her own perception, and she began to tune out and discount her inner critic, the abusive critical voice that was quick to remind her how “wrong” she is. Gradually she rejected the old internalized messages and chose to validate a healthier, self-affirming inner guide.
In a few months’ time, Leah left the dysfunctional crazy-making world behind for a healthier life lived on her own terms. Tucked away in her arsenal of therapeutic support was the knowledge that she is always deserving of her own feelings and perceptions.