Dr. Bernice Sorensen
Are you an only child?
Haven’t you got any brothers or sisters?
my heart sinks
my stomach turns
I fear the next remarks -
I expect your mum and dad spoil you -
I smile wanly
what can I say?
If I say yes -
heads nod knowingly
If I say no -
ever so slightly in disbelief
I can’t win
I say nothing
I look down
shuffle my shoes
When I wrote these stanzas, reflecting on my experience of growing up an only-child in the 1950’s, I was unaware how significant they would be. My subsequent doctoral research into the experiences of adult only-children exposed issues that revealed a covert level of shame as a central issue which for many only-children led to a shame based personality persisting into adulthood. All the following stanzas are taken from the experiences of adult only-children.
I was the only one
who was an only child
I actually felt
awkwardness and embarrassment
I actually felt
I felt like
I was different
not as good
there must be something wrong
with me – my family
I actually felt ashamed
We all experience shame at some level as an unavoidable aspect of being human. The experience of shame is one of feeling exposed and shrinking into oneself. It is the experience of the self seeing the self and feeling inadequate and insubstantial as a human being. Whilst it is internalised, the sensation of shame is always experienced against an interpersonal backdrop, or awareness of our potential exposure to others. As such it is a motivating force in social development affecting both our social identity and internal sense of self. Too little shame can be as detrimental as too much. Too little and we lack a sense of our social impact on others, whereas too much shame induces feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem creating difficulties in our interpersonal relationships. Shame restricts our ability to share ourselves with another person either intimately or publicly.
Shame then, is about the whole self or our sense of who we believe ourselves to be, whereas guilt concerns our actions. We feel guilt for something that we have, or have not done. Shame and guilt both have their part to play in the development of human conscience as reflected in the myth of Adam and Eve who experienced shame in their nakedness and guilt for their disobedience in eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
The origins of shame are interpersonal. Parental empathy and attunement provide foundations for a sense of self-worth (1,2). Shame occurs when the care-giver is unable, for what ever reason, to provide enough care and attention. This can lead the infant to mistrust the interactional patterns of the care-giver. Whilst some fluctuation is inevitable and unavoidable, constant fluctuations can lead to insecure attachment. When an infant, despite all its efforts, cannot elicit a good enough continuity of attention from the care-giver, basic trust and self-confidence is lost and shame is induced.
Infants and children need to feel the parental relationship as a separate human being, loved in their own right. If the parents need the infant’s affirmation of love too much, or parental anxiety does not allow any relaxation in their constant controlling care, there is a loss of both spontaneity and being in touch with one’s own needs. Confidence and self-esteem are therefore inhibited because the infant seeks to fulfil the parent’s need (3). Separateness gives the child a sense of his own personal life; of being alone in the presence of another (4). Internal identification with received parental care will either be love-based, fear-based or shame-based (5). These internal representations function as an intra-psychic guiding capacity in our internal lives so that shame based care induces a shame based personality. Shame plays a fundamental role in negotiating interpersonal closeness and distance, affecting how close I can allow someone into my personal space.
Why is this particularly relevant to the only-child?
As therapists, we are concerned with working effectively with our clients but the developmental challenges for only-children, particularly in the area of shame, have received little attention. People in any birth order position can and do experience shame. Clearly shame is not unique to only-children, but I have found evidence that only-children are vulnerable to shame in three specific ways; parental enmeshment, lack of siblings, social and cultural messages.
Enmeshment occurs when children experience themselves as an extension of a parent. In only-children this often manifests as ‘the little adult’; responsible, self possessed and seemingly mature, they are attuned to fulfilling parental needs rather than their own. Being the centre of attention and constantly observed, leads to a lack of emotional space, a sense of suffocation and intrusion, all common themes in my research:
As the only one you’re the focus
therefore everything is noticed
you behaving properly –
my mother was concerned I didn’t become spoilt
I needed to be grateful
Enmeshment leads to difficulties in separation and individuation, and although this can be problematic for people with siblings, it is particularly difficult for the only-child who already struggles to have a separate identity as the only recipient of all parental hopes and fears. Many of my adult co-researchers found it extremely difficult to feel a person in their own right, which affected all their interpersonal relationships, making them distant through fear of losing what identity they had. Kate, in her fifties, believed this so strongly she felt her parents would not exist if she detached from them and consequently struggles with the shame of wanting to be separate:
it feels like
I was my parents creation
they owned me
in detaching myself from that
they can no longer exist
I feel very very sad
the half life I’ve had
has been a self-defeating one
in order to maintain my parent’s illusions
Feeling responsible for fulfilling parental expectations, means only-children carry a greater burden as the one living testimony of parental achievement. Letting go of this responsibility is a challenge often unmet until the death of the parents’. Being the centre of attention affects other relationships, causing friction and tension, exacerbated by the only-child’s attempts to avoid conflict by trying to placate and please, or withdraw and isolate themselves.
Lack of a Sibling
When I was little
I always use to have incredible daydreams
about being rather grand
in the centre of things
I know it sounds really arrogant
but it was kind of the natural place
I should be
I use the term ‘grandiosity’ to explain the problems that arise for the only child who is very often seen as ‘special’. Although it is important for every child to feel special when specialness is combined with enmeshment and a lack of sibling comparison, the child is unable to develop a sense of who they are in relation to others. When a sibling is born a process of ‘de-thronement’ takes place as parents re-focus their attention on the new child. This means a loss of specialness, but also the opportunity for a perceptual shift. The child learns to accept a relative abandonment by her parents because she is no longer the focus of their attention. She adopts an ‘active’ attitude towards new her sibling, thus letting go of her former ‘passive’ attitude as the sole recipient of her parent’s attention. (6) This is accompanied by the linguistic phenomena of a move from present to imperfect tense, as well as the adoption of four verbs in the future tense. Future tense indicates a time of ‘aggresiveness’ which linked to the ‘active’ process of moving towards a future, rather than passive acceptance of the present. A greater use of the terms ‘me’ and ‘I’ also indicate a growing sense of self and separation. This experience of a sibling birth gives the child an opportunity to re-structure her relations with her human environment, overcome jealousy and grandiosity and gain a sense of belonging.
I lost my specialness
at about eleven or twelve
I went completely off the rails for a while
Now there’s a part of me that wants to be very special
has a right to be very special
the shadow part of me
is saying no
you’re just a member of this world
you don’t have a right to be anything
you’re just on your own mate
Sibling interactions provide social and emotional learning and without them opportunities are lost for dealing with jealousy, anger, envy and conflict, in the relatively safe environment of the home. This can leave the only-child longing to remain in the specialness of their youth, without the essential emotional and social development required to make good relationships. Having spent a great deal of time in their own company only-children develop ways of being alone which can be difficult to integrate in later relationships, resulting in them feeling a greater tension between the human needs to have both space and intimacy (7).
The public view of the only-child
The image of the only child has under gone several changes. Prior to the late 20th century only-children were viewed negatively socially and psychologically. In the 21st century with the growing numbers of only children (particularly in some European countries and China) there is now both a negative and positive image, though largely the former is dominant in the UK and the latter in the US. The negative stereotypes are based on past prejudice but, whether or not they are valid, they affect how only-children are perceived and how they perceive themselves.
‘My partner and I have spent many years attempting to come to terms with our secondary infertility and are regularly set back, and hurt at the prejudice we, and especially our young son, experience in being an only-child’.
A mother of an only-child confided that she continually received comments at the school gate, perhaps some were intended to be positive but she was aware that behind remarks such as ‘ Oh John seems so independent for an only-child,’ or ‘ I would have expected him to be so clingy being the only one’ lurked the negative only-child stereotype.
Many parents of only-children are very concerned their child will not be regarded as spoilt and overcompensate:
You’re an only child
everybody’s going to say you’re spoilt
Well you’re not going to be spoilt
Just because you’re an only child
don’t think you’re going to get anything more
And it almost felt as if – because I was an only child
I was going to be deprived
I wasn’t going to get anything
I didn’t get anything
It was like there was an over compensation
there was that assumption you’d be spoilt
Well I was spoiled but
not in the way that they meant!
The reasons why one is an only-child can cause an unspoken shameful atmosphere in the parent’s and only-child’s life because it may be held as a ‘secret’ in the family. This shame is assimilated, not necessarily through conscious awareness, and resides in the shadow and collective unconscious. The shame is carried, but does not belong to the carrier, and they in turn may not be aware, on a conscious level, of the burden they carry. Social, cultural and this ‘circumstantial shame’ become linked in the shame-based personality. The person then experiences appropriate levels of shame as crippling, because they engender shameful feelings that go way beyond the situation that provoked the initial feelings.
How can we respond as therapists?
One of the important findings from my research is that only-children experience a ‘lack’ through not having siblings. We all need existential validation and whilst only-children have at least one parent for this, lack of siblings with whom to interact makes them potentially more vulnerable to existence. Mitchell (8) and Coles (9) have both raised the importance of siblings for social interaction and emotional development. I am taking this further by stating that the only-child, growing up without siblings, will miss out on a large part of existential witnessing that siblings provide. This may sound simple, even obvious, but it is also profound as it is the major reason why people with siblings find it so hard to grasp this sense of difference, and conversely why some onlies deny the difference, as to acknowledge it would bring the anguish of that difference to the forefront of their experience.
Furthermore, enmeshment leading to a shame-based personality, coupled with circumstantial and social shame means that some only-children will particularly need their only-child experience validated. The popularity of both my website www.onlychild.org.uk and Ann Richardson’s Beinganonly message board, points to the importance of witness and the need for validation. Only-child clients may experience shame that is unspoken, requiring us as therapists to remember that the affect of shame operates facially, affectively, cognitively and interpersonally (10). We all experience shame but it is important to realise that for some people this is crippling. If it is to be worked through, it has to be re-experienced in the present which can only occur if the therapist stays mindful of its possibility and is willing to recognise and allow feelings of shame in themselves.
1. Stern, D.N. (1985) The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books.
2. Wharton, B. (1990) The Hidden Face of Shame: The Shadow, Shame and Separation. Journal of Analytical Psychology 35 (3) 279-299. London: Routledge
3. Jacoby, M. (1991) Shame and the Origins of Self-esteem. London: Bruner Routledge
4. Winnicott, D.W. (1958) The Capacity to be Alone in the Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment pp. 29-36, London: Hogarth Press, reprinted
5. Kaufman, G. (1991) Shame: The power of caring. Vermont: Schenkman Books Inc.
6. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) The Phenomenology of Perception. (translation: Smith, C.) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
7. Tillich, P. (1952) The Courage To Be. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
8. Mitchell J (2003) Siblings. Cambridge: Polity Press, London: Karnac Books, 1990.
9. Coles P (2003) The Importance of Sibling Relationships in Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac
10. Kaufman, G. (1993) The Psychology of Shame. London: Routledge