How to deal with a shame-based parent

G-face asks: I’ve had a lot of problems over the years that I’ve struggled with and gone to counseling for, and one of my biggest problems is my mom. I love her, but she’s always been a really judgmental person to me. She nit-picks on everyone and everything. It’s like if she doesn’t approve of something, she’s going to shame it until you don’t approve of it, either. And I feel like she does this with me a lot. She judges a lot of the things I say or do and acts as if they’re the stupidest things ever, and sometimes her negative comments really make me feel bad about myself. She’s also starting to see every difference of opinion as an argument, so if I say one thing wrong she starts raising her voice and defending herself. It’s come to the point where I don’t feel safe with her anymore. I can’t even have conversations with her and if she gets upset I just have to keep my mouth shut so she can have the last word. As I said earlier, I’ve gone to counseling for this before cause it got really bad at one point and I started having mental breakdowns. She even came to a couple of the sessions for group therapy, and that just made things worse. My relationship with my mother is starting to feel like a lost cause. And it’s hard because she’s really the only relationship I have right now. I just moved to a new city and I know no one, so I’ve been isolated for a while and have no one to talk to except her. I’m not really sure what to do about this situation. How to fix things with my mother, and also how to feel less isolated and lonely. Any ideas?

Hi G-Face –



This situation you’re in is awfully sad to read about, and way more common than you probably realize. I get lots of letters – from people of all ages – about situations like this.


In fact, I guess you could say that what I see as the big issue here is really the main reason I have my website.


Let me explain. I live with a wonderful human I call Handsome. I love him more than anything and think he’s absolutely brilliant (He knows how to go to a store, get let in, and come out with bags of food! I could never do that!).   But as I’ve watched him and his family and friends over the years, I’ve noticed a quality that their giant brains have that I don’t, and which I’d never want to have. It’s called Shame.


Shame is the most awful, destructive, quality I’ve ever seen. What cancer does to bodies, Shame does to souls. It tells people they’re not good enough, that they aren’t lovable, that they’re fundamentally alone – and leaves them to struggle with that pain. Even dogs who’ve been abused don’t have Shame (They might believe that they can’t trust anyone, that no one will ever love them, but their small brains don’t follow that up with a logic that says there’s something wrong with them – they’ll just believe the world is a mean place. That’s bad enough, but Shame is even worse!).


And if all that isn’t enough, Shame makes a person see the world through a Shame-lens, and hear and speak through a Shame-Language. So the way they treat the world, and the way they see even those they most love, is all about their feelings of being unwantable and unacceptable.


Sounds like the definition of Hell, doesn’t it?


Well, to me, it sure sounds like that’s the problem your mother is suffering from.


You see, people see so much of their self-worth in their children; they feel that if their kid succeeds, that means they’re good parents, but if their kid fails at something, then that must mean they’re not good enough. (This is all COMPLETELY UNTRUE, by the way – children of great parents fail at things all the time, and children of lousy parents can be great successes in all sorts of ways. But I’m talking about the way the parents judge their children and themselves).


So when your mother sees you do or say something she doesn’t love, she’s personally offended – in her mind, you’re making her look bad. (I can only imagine how crazy it would make me if every time I pooped in public, Handsome was shocked and humiliated, feeling that it was the same as if he were doing it!) And because you’re “doing” this to her, she’s very angry with you. And if you talk back to defend yourself, you’re “doing” it to her even more!


Now you and I know that you’re not actually doing anything to her at all. But she can’t see it that way.


So what should you do to change her?


You’re right when you say it’s a “lost cause,” because you can’t. You can love her, and be as friendly with her as possible, and do what you can to help her, and all that will make your lives better. But you can’t change this deep-down condition.


(If she wants to change it in some way, if she wants to go into counseling herself and work on her pain, that can do wonders. But only she can do that; no one else can do it for her.)


But you can do one thing. Which is just where your letter ended. You can make your life better. You can go out and make friends. You can work to move past the Shame your mother has put onto you (it’s not her fault; there’s no way a person can be raised by a Shame-based parent and not pick it up themselves) and create a life you can enjoy and engage.


How to do that? Well, I have a lot of pieces on the AskShirelle website about how to make friends. But I’m guessing you’re an awfully nice and likable person already, so I think your main job is to just get out and meet people – and know that they’ll be likely to befriend you then.


I don’t know where you live or how old you are, G-face, so I can’t give specific recommendations. But if you’re so inclined, taking some classes, volunteering for causes you believe in, going to a place of worship, or even just hanging out at bars or coffee shops – these are all great ways to meet other people.


Or my favorite – get yourself a POOCH, and take that pup out to dog parks and other places where its natural friendliness will help you meet all sorts of new people.


You can do this, G-face. In fact, you need to. It’s the difference between living the heavenly life you deserve, and living in the same hell your mother’s in.


I’m here to help in any way I can. But I’ll start with a lick on your face to make you smile, and a nip on your heels to get you to walk out that door.


Your future awaits!


All my love,


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