Ask Dr. P. | Feeling ashamed of your background

Ask Dr. P.


I’m the first in my family to go to college. Why do I sometimes feel ashamed of my background?


If you're the first in your family to go to college and you grew up in a household that is financially poor and/or has low levels of education, feeling ashamed of your background is quite understandable and common.

In working hard to fit into a world that is very different from the one you grew up in, varied aspects of your background can be a source of conflict or shame. You may, at times, feel ashamed of the way your family/caregivers speak, their poor grammar or vocabulary, the topics they talk about, their manner of dress, or what you consider to be their overall lack of sophistication. Your brother’s loudness may seem gross and boisterous to you and your sister’s clothes may appear flashy and in poor taste. Furthermore, your neighborhood may be located on the “wrong side of the tracks” or your religion may be different from the campus norm.

While you are in the process of changing and adapting to a college environment, your family and caregivers have probably stayed the same. Thus, you are becoming different from them - a different person with different interests and values - a reality that often feels like betrayal to them. As you struggle trying to fit into both worlds, people back home are trying to understand what happened to the son or daughter, brother or sister, they knew some time ago.


What can you do about feelings of shame?



First of all, accept your feelings for what they are – a means of establishing your independence and becoming your own person. Undoubtedly your feelings will change over time, but the more you deliberately try to get rid of feelings, including shame, the more likely they are to stick around. Self-acceptance and deeper understanding of the world and people around you are the best ways of changing and moving on.



One thing that you can do is to try and see the strengths of your family and caregivers. Maybe your mother was hard working and your father very conscientious. Maybe your primary caregiver was the life of the party or your aunt was very religious. Or, maybe the people around you were very family-oriented and self-sacrificing. In my case, my mother was very warm and affectionate but quite passive and helpless. My father, on the other hand, was an angry alcoholic, but he was quite intelligent and competent in many ways. Neither parent was all-bad. I was fortunate because I got some of their best qualities and few of their worst.

In the process of growing up with your family and/or caregivers, you became someone who has some wonderful qualities. Ask yourself where these characteristics came from?

Some of your positive personality or character traits undoubtedly came from influential people in your life, and for that, you can be thankful.

As for those positive qualities that you developed on your own, you can justifiably feel proud of yourself.



Next, consider the values of the two worlds in which you now live (college and home). Which values within these two worlds are positive?

In the college environment, the positive values are many. Among them: love of learning, a determined quest for truth, disciplined scholarship, acceptance of diversity, team spirit, and friendship. However, some negative values also reside in the world of college, often manifested more by peers than professors. Materialism, making money, “looking cool” through excessive drinking and sexual exploitation, inordinate competitiveness, and a phony sophistication that devalues honesty, often run rampant on college campuses today.

In contrast, your family and/or caregivers may be good people characterized by moral integrity, kindness, and good will, even if they lack the kind of worldliness that you now admire. If, on the other hand, your family has few redeeming qualities, then it is up to you to establish your own values based on your experiences, mentors, the best your college has to offer, and your own religious or spiritual beliefs. Here, your college chaplain or cleric can be helpful in establishing or reinforcing the kind of values by which you want to live your life.

It is important to become your own person and not a caricature of collegial or familial qualities.

I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

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