Shame can be a debilitating emotion, and one that many people carry with them from childhood.
If I could go back and remove one aspect of my childhood, it would not be any one event. It would not be a bully at school, or a parenting approach my family used, or any one of many troublesome or traumatic times. It would be the removal of feelings of shame—feelings of not fitting in, not belonging, and being different. Shame is a useless, no good feeling. Shame holds us back, keeps us small, and deters us from being the very best people we can be. What I mean by a “shameless childhood” is one with just that: less shame.
What the hell is shame anyway? Isn’t shame needed to shape the behavior of the young and get the masses to fall in line? Well, no. You’re actually thinking of guilt, which does the trick quite nicely. If I get that nagging, guilty feeling, that’s my internal heads-up that I have done something wrong and likely need to change course or correct my behavior. Shame is the feeling that I am wrong. This feeling is pervasive and feels unfixable. It also feels so bad—I assume I’m the only one who feels it and I am unlikely to share it with anyone, which is (ironically) the only real way to mitigate shame.
Revolutionary shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown says the way to build shame-resilience as adults is to embrace it, share it, call on our higher-level thinking, and coach ourselves with positive self-talk. A method Brown learned from one of her research subjects was to repeat the word “pain” over and over until you can breathe and focus long enough to name what just happened to you as a “shame attack.” This reframes the very real physiological aspects of the shame experience, and creates space for better thinking. Then you can engage in self-talk that sounds like, “You screwed up, but everyone makes mistakes sometimes. You’re going to be OK,” instead of, “You idiot—I can’t believe you screwed that up. You never do anything right!”
Children are especially vulnerable to shame. Self-centered and dependent, young humans will easily translate, “You did something bad,” into, “You ARE bad,” if we aren’t aware and careful about the messages we send. When I was about 5, I remember asking a babysitter for something to eat. Apparently, I forgot to say please. “What’s the magic word?” she asked in a somewhat taunting manner. I stared at her, embarrassed that I didn’t know. I don’t recall how many times she asked or how long I stared, but I do remember the searing shame once I realized that: a) I hadn’t known what the “magic” word was, and b) I had forgotten to say please.
Just an earnest, people-pleasing kindergartener, I was mortified and already busy condemning myself for an honest blunder. At such a young age, I was completely unable to chant “pain” to myself until I could think clearly, or know that my value did not depend on this sullen, irritable woman who’d been left in charge of me. I did what all small children have to do in this scenario: I internalized the message that I was a screw-up.
I try to be abundantly clear with children that they are loved and accepted unconditionally, even when their behavior is awful. It is way too easy for kids to slide directly into feeling worthless via shame. In her groundbreaking book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown wisely states, “(W)hen it comes to our feelings of love, belonging, and worthiness, we are most shaped by our families of origin—what we hear, what we’re told, and perhaps most importantly, how we observe our parents engaging in the world.”
This statement emphasizes the importance of living this practice, and modeling compassion and self-acceptance for children. It is good, but just not enough, to refrain from using shame-based statements and parenting techniques. We have to really walk the walk. We need to treat ourselves with kindness and love regardless of our imperfections.
After years of wandering the self-help aisle and the guidance of a wonderful therapist, I am much less prone to shame-attacks, but I still see evidence of them all around me. A major symptom is people’s inability or unwillingness to admit they are wrong, or have made a mistake. So drowning in shame are they, that this is experienced as being wrong or being a mistake. What a mess of problems that causes—denial, blame, and lies—to name a few. The result is a population of folks often unable to recover from even minor setbacks.
Acceptance of differences and compassion for others and ourselves lies at the heart of shame-busting. We all want to feel like we belong—despite our errors and differences. Children are quick to judge and condemn their peers, but that is learned behavior. Wanting to fit in is driven by the shameful belief that if you don’t adjust and change in some way, you won’t belong. Our “golden rule” of treating others like you want to be treated epitomizes our profound cultural bias that we are all the same.
We are so seduced by what we do have in common that we seek to eradicate all that is different about us. Instead, celebrate what you don’t have in common. Sometimes it’s a big difference, like a religious view, or some other deeply held belief. Other times it’s a small thing, like the dislike of licorice, or the notion that the word please can be magic.
Sarah MacLaughlin is a social worker and author of the award-winning book What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children. She considers it her life’s work to promote happy, well adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today. Sarah teaches classes and workshops, and consults with families everywhere. She is also Mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Follow her on Facebook, Blogger, and Twitter.