By Esther Mann, LCSW

Dear Esther,

My son’s wife recently left him, and I don’t blame her. He did something unforgivable, and she finally had it and left.

I’m feeling a tremendous amount of shame. My son was always viewed with admiration. People thought he and his wife and children were the perfect family. Little did they know what kinds of problems were lurking behind closed doors. I myself only started getting wind of the problems fairly recently. I’ve always had a good relationship with my daughter-in-law, and she confided in me about what my son was up to not very long ago. I was shocked and certainly understood her need to get away from him. If he were my husband, I would probably do the same thing.

This is all very sad to me. But I know there is nothing I can do about it. The divorce will take place and everyone will go on with their lives and hopefully survive. The reason I’m writing to you is about how I’m handling things. My husband would tell you that I’m handling this in a ridiculous way.

Believe it or not, I haven’t mentioned the impending divorce to anyone, not even my closest friends. Even I know that it’s pretty silly to pretend as though something major is not happening to all of us. And I have no doubt that everyone knows. It’s hard not to know in this small community where news–especially bad news–spreads really fast.

My husband knows how close I am to a few of my dearest friends and he can’t understand why I haven’t discussed it with any of them. He thinks I would get support and comfort from them if I did. Yet I can’t bring myself to have that conversation, and I know why.

One thing that has always been extremely important to me is to be viewed as a strong, together, confident woman. I have my theories about why that’s so important to me, but I won’t go there in this letter. The bottom line is that I absolutely hate pity. The idea of people looking at me with those sad eyes is more than I can bear. I don’t ever want to be that pathetic woman that people are talking about and tsk-tsking over. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I don’t want to be that person.

So I stay silent and walk around feeling like I’m almost an impostor, pretending my life is one way when in fact it’s far from it. Mind you, I catch people’s expressions and I believe they are looking at me differently than before this all happened.

I don’t know how to “go there”–how to share this information with my close friends and not feel pathetic. It would just kill me to feel like I’m some victim in all of this. And yet, as a result of keeping it all inside, I’m walking around feeling dazed and disconnected–and certainly disingenuous.

Do you have any thoughts on how I can balance my need to feel strong and in control with my need to share with a few friends and still feel like no one is pitying me? Is that even possible? It’s all feeling so confusing to me right now, and I know I have to get a grip on things.

Dazed

Dear Dazed,

It sounds like there’s a lot going on here. First off, I am sorry for what you are all going through. I find it somewhat interesting, however, that you’ve said almost nothing about your reaction to your son’s divorce. Yes, you agree that his behavior was unforgivable and you don’t blame your daughter-in-law for leaving him, but I find it kind of odd that there was nothing in your letter about how this debacle is making you feel and how you are dealing with your son’s horrible behavior and the demise of his marriage.

Maybe you just don’t want to focus on those areas in your letter because you feel it’s more important right now to protect your image. Or maybe protecting your image is just a distraction from dealing with the various emotions any mother would naturally have to deal with at a time like this. Try to determine whether that may be the case here; if so, you may want to take some time to process the divorce and all of its ramifications. Not dealing with any major loss eventually comes back to haunt us, so it’s always important and certainly wise to process the big story that is happening now.

But, for the sake of answering your question, I will focus on your issues surrounding being pitied and how it is manipulating your behavior at this time and keeping you from some honest conversations with the people who care about you most. I would agree that most people don’t really want to be viewed with pity. While a few do (and some even relish the experience), most of us recoil at the idea of being seen in a pitiful way. It can make us feel small, inadequate, and even deficient.

There is, however, a vast difference between being seen with pity and being seen with compassion. Compassion reflects deep feelings of caring about another and a desire to be supportive and helpful. It is an emotion that brings people together, without necessarily making one person feel as though he or she is in a lower position. It involves a sharing of pain and sadness and an opportunity for two people to become even closer than before.

My guess is that if you decided to share with a few of your closest friends your story regarding your son, you would definitely feel a burden lifted and also feel more honest. Of course, one has to be very careful and selective about whom to share such painful stories with. Not everyone has earned the right to share your deepest feelings. Only the best of friends will honor you and your plight and process it with you in a helpful way. They know you well enough to know what is helpful for you to hear and what isn’t.

As long as you don’t present to them a worn-down, pitiful woman, they will absolutely not see you that way. The strong qualities you’ve always portrayed won’t suddenly be stripped away from you. You will still be seen as the confident woman you’ve always wanted to be seen as, but, as is often the way of life, you’ve been dealt a very bad hand at the moment.

There is one more issue worth mentioning. You said that you are feeling a tremendous amount of shame, which no doubt is also playing a role in your silence. I think it’s important for you to embrace the concept that you are not an extension of your son and he is not an extension of you and your husband. Many people view their own children that way, as well as other people’s children. The fact of the matter is that your son’s shameful behavior is not your shameful behavior, and you don’t have to own it.

He is an adult. He has made bad choices for himself, and it’s all on him. Obviously you’re not proud of what he did, and certainly you’re saddened by what he did, but understand that your entire attitude toward this present crisis would be softened a bit if you could detach from the feelings of shame. A hard nut to crack, no doubt. But definitely something worth thinking about.

It sounds like this event in your life may inspire some changes in how you perceive yourself and your role in the world–hopefully for the better. Growth through pain is not unusual. May your pain recede and your growth continue.

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

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