Shame is the most toxic ingredient to give children.
Shame is defined as “a negative emotion that combines feelings of dishonor, unworthiness, and embarrassment.”
A couple of weeks ago I was in the hospital with my daughter. She’s 11, and suffered injuries from an auto accident we were in six months ago. We stayed a couple of days, and as usual, when in a hospital, shared a room with another child.
She was probably my daughter’s age, and I believe suffered some sort of injury to her leg, although I don’t know how. She had been in the hospital a week, and I knew how that felt.
The first time we were in the hospital, after the car accident, we too were there a week. I could tell from the father’s behavior he was ready to get out of there. He was running in and out, trying to get prescriptions, test results, and those infamous discharge papers we often wait hours and hours for.
While gone, his daughter was in the bed, and I heard crying. I caught a glimpse into her room, and saw she was putting a bandage on her wounded leg. I wanted to ask her if she was okay, but I didn’t.
Her father came back in the room, and scolded her for crying. “What is the matter with you?” he asked. She explained how she tried to get the bandage on by herself, and how he wasn’t there to help. He told her she did it wrong. She had no response.
Yes, I am sure he was stressed. I understand. But I also understand shame. Her non-response showed me what we, as children, do with shame.
I witnessed another incident in the hospital—a sick little boy, being pulled and yelled at to hurry up by his mother. He did the same as the young girl: no response.
I suppose there are some children who might rise up in the face of shame and say, “no—this is not okay.” But mostly, as children, we don’t know what to do with this subtle, consistent, insidious culprit that is shame, but to ingest it.
It seeps into us, and like a cancer grows. It permeates our being. Over time we might shut down. Or we might lash out. We will get involved in addictive and destructive behaviors, all because we, underneath that shame, ask the question, whose answer we fear: “what if something is wrong with me? What if I am not okay?”
The answer we fear is that there is something wrong with us, and we are not okay. And so the shame and the behaviors of this shame persist. If we are not conscious of our own shame, and do the inner work to heal it, we will pass it down to our children.
The reason shame is so insidious is because it is within all of our institutions. School. Church. Home. The culture is seeped in shame. And of course, it would be because the inhabitants of this culture are.
The reason shame is so subtle is because we believe this is what we deserve. It doesn’t seem foreign anymore. Instead shame has become as common as the skin on our bones and the blood in our veins.
So, now what?
It’s time to detox from shame.
The beauty in witnessing these interactions at the hospital is, although I recognized the shame, it felt foreign to watch it being thrown at these children. I believe this is because in my own family I have broken the cycle, which says it is possible.
And it begins with self-awareness. To break shame down and shake shame off within our families and communities as parents, educators and just everyday people in the world—we need to understand the shame inside ourselves.
We need to watch how we project, and if nothing else observe the children after we have thrown shame their way. They don’t need it. We don’t need it anymore, yet it is still here among us.
As adults, we are susceptible to it wherever it is we are ashamed. For instance, I was having a conversation with a lawyer. Sure, he might have just needed certain bits of information about me and my work, but I started to feel ashamed.
I told him I was striving to be a writer. “Starting your own business as a writer?” he asks. “What is your education? Do you get paid for this?” I felt shame and wanted to defend myself.
Kids don’t have the luxury to be at peace with themselves while living in a culture of shame. They have to try to detox after they leave their houses full of shame, and many don’t. But, we as adults can detox, and therefore be better hosts to our children, ours or not.
How can we begin to detox from shame?
Begin to notice the shame around you, in our culture: on television, radio, and other forms of media. Then, take your attention to our institutions: church, school, places of work. Then, see your own family, your upbringing.
In what ways were you shamed? Now, go deeper and see your current family: how might you be oozing your shame toward them? How does shame sit and speak to you? What does it make you do? What does it make you project?
We are often sold magic pills and remedies to heal our wounds, but all we really need to do is see something for it to change. Bring the light of awareness to our patterns. Connect to our upbringing and current influences, and the heart will begin to heal, and transform.
It’s a process.
Let’s start with seeing shame in all its forms. This isn’t to encourage it. Our silence and ignorant acceptance of it is.
editor: Greg Eckard