I know exactly the feeling I hate the most without even having to think about it.
It’s a feeling I will do almost anything to avoid, although, I am not very successful at doing so—avoiding this feeling, that is.
The feeling is shame.
And I know it well because all my life I’ve been prone to shame attacks.
An attack of feeling that everything is wrong with me. That I will never be good enough. And that it’s not my actions that have been faulty but my actual being itself that’s bad.
I know these shame attacks stem from certain aspects of my childhood and therefore I’ve always hoped my own children wouldn’t have to experience shame.
But what has come clear to me recently is that I can’t protect my kids from experiencing shame.
Why this experience of shame is a natural part of the human experience I’m not wise enough to understand…but what now seems obvious is that everyone experiences it.
Even though my children have been offered unconditional love, unconditional support and a complete belief in who they are as people, they still feel shame.
Recently my daughter has become unable to return to her ballet class. She says, “I don’t know? I just get a bad feeling in my stomach and I start to cry when I think about going.”
And I know just the feeling she’s talking about.
That perfect mix of a knot/butterfly indication of anxiety, fear and shame all mixed up into a tight ball that just won’t go away even if we wish it to really, really hard.
When I was a kid two things happened that I told no one about. They weren’t big things but they made me feel bad.
The first was when I was in grade two and we had to cut along the lines on a piece of paper and then fold the paper into a cube. I couldn’t do it. So I threw the first piece of paper out and took another one to try again.
My classmate Crystal told me I was a waster, and I was wasting paper and making too much garbage.
I mean it was just a little comment from a classmate but I really didn’t want to waste paper and her words made me feel bad.
I never told anyone.
And every time I thought of that incident it hurt. For years.
And then years later another event happened. Again not a big deal. Pretty innocuous. But I felt bad—really bad.
I was walking along the street on my way home from camp, messing around with friends flipping door handles of cars and laughing our asses off, when I flipped the handle of a car and the door flew open. And at just that same moment a boy from my camp—actually a boy who had been bullying me earlier that day—came out of his house and screamed at me for opening the door of his mom’s car.
The next day at camp he accused me of stealing a cassette tape.
I was mortified.
And that night while watching The Love Boat with my parents I kept thinking of telling them the story. I wanted to tell them about this boy getting mad at me and everything that had happened. I tried to find the words. But my mouth stayed closed and nothing came out and I said nothing.
I said nothing all summer.
But I thought about it. I fantasized about him finding me and accusing me again and his mom yelling at me and that terrible knot didn’t leave my stomach for months, maybe years.
And what these stories from my past show is that we all are going to experience shame. Because it doesn’t take much. Our kids can have all the support in the world, and as parents we can tell them they are lovely and amazing every single day but life happens and our kids are going to have experiences that cause shame.
The end. It is going to happen.
That is why it isn’t just preventing shame that’s important but dealing with it when it comes up.
And for me and my daughter that has meant talking, and acknowledging, and empathising and hugging. And then we shared what was going on with her ballet class with some adult friends. Not for suggestions per se about what to do with feeling bad about ballet class, but just so it didn’t feel like a secret and so we could hear them say, “Yeah, I felt the same way about swimming lessons or hockey when I was a kid.”
Because one thing about shame is it goes away quickly when we realize what we’re experiencing is normal.
And that is why I’m so grateful to Brené Brown for shining the light on shame, helping us see how normal it is.
See what she has to say about it here:
Author: Ruth Lera
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: April Milani at Pixoto