Lately I have been very interested in shame, more specifically I’ve been interested in chasing shame.
Raising a child has helped me try and put emotions into language ‘even a child could understand’. This has in turn helped me to understand them better. Shame is one I am very keen to point out whenever I see it- this is partly because emotional intelligence is very important to me (#HSParenting). And, it is partly because of how we, as a society, have begun to pay attention in a different way when someone says they have been hurt.
I believe that naming shame and then responding appropriately to it is key to emotional and mental wellness.
When my son does something that he must be held accountable for (i.e. those small lies we all tell in childhood), we talk not just about the lie and following consequence but also about the way the lie was an attempt to hide from the truth.
“Hiding is what shame does.” I tell him, “The part that is painful, and makes you want to hide, is shame and it lives inside your body until you say the painful thing out loud.” I’ve been gently coaching him to notice when he is feeling the urge to hide or to lie. I point out when I notice he is looking afraid to say something or when he is looking guilty. I try to coax him into a safe conversation about what is going on- since I know that pointing a finger at him will only make him try more desperately to hide.
Now, of course, he doesn’t always take this wisdom to heart. He is eight, after all.
And, half the time I end up pointing my finger at him anyway- without noticing until it’s too late.
But we keep trying because it is that important and because there are plenty of chances to address it.
And we keep trying because I am learning right along with him. When I was an elementary teacher, I understood that a child learns best when she has to teach another child- it is the same with grown ups. The things I teach him are teaching me.
I know that in order to call shame out of its hiding place in my interior landscape, I have to go deeper than “I’m sorry” and I have to actually say, out loud whatever it is I am sorry about. Whether it is legitimate shame or whether it is imposed shame (based on someone else’s opinion of what I should/should not do), the point is still the same.
When I recognize that I am ashamed, I name it and then I try to name all the things connected to is as well. When I get to the most painful, embarrassing thing, I know that the pain is on its way out of my system because I’m getting deep into the part I don’t want to admit out loud. I keep going and try to say the most difficult thing I can- out loud. I do not think past admitting the truth. I just know that verbalizing shame will physically remove it from wherever it has been hiding inside of me.
So that is how I have been teaching my child to admit guilt- he must not just say he’s sorry but he must also say thing thing he’s too embarrassed to say because that’s where the shame is lodged. I explain to him that it works this way for everybody. AND, we practice it in a safe and trusted place, like sitting with me on the bed with no one else in earshot. That’s very important, I think.
We rehearse our apologies together and try out different ways to say something beyond, ‘I’m sorry.’ This way he and I both get to have input on what needs to be said- he gets to craft what feels most safe and I get to include what seems to be most painful for him to admit. It’s a messy creative conversation that doesn’t always work out perfectly, but helps us both and builds the trust between us. I also get to prepare him for any consequences that might be waiting for him.
So, I’ve been thinking about shame a lot and then I had a dream.
In the dream, I was standing in the kitchen of the house we lived in when I was a teenager. I was holding a jar of something and there was this disgusting, nasty thing stuck to the top of it. I held it out and tried to pry the thing off. Then it morphed into a kitten. As I showed it to my sister, she took it and it changed into a rat. Then she dropped it and it ran into an empty cabinet beneath the counter. So I bent down to peer into the cabinet and the rat morphed into this creature which had its back to me and its face in its hands. Suddenly, it turned around to screech at me.
I woke up with the image of this creature’s face in my mind. It was like a puppet but it was independent of a puppeteer, it’s face was childlike in its simplicity, but terrifying in its wildness.
When I sat up in bed and thought about this dream, it occurred to me that this was an illustration of how shame is constantly changing as we continue to chase it out. We are not ever going to rid our lives of it and yet we cannot let it remain once it has found a resting place within us. We are on a pursuit to root it out of where ever it lands.
Our emotions never age beyond our toddler years. Adults essentially experience shame the same way a three or four year old experiences shame. The puppet creature in my dream showed me that shame is an ugly disgusting creature hellbent on not being found. Shame also loves playing hide and seek.
I think that so long as we root it out when it first lands, it is relatively compliant, flexible, remove-able. But if it stays there and we pretend we don’t notice it, then it will grow into something much more stubborn and will require more of our attention and work to loosen it from it’s hiding place.
Grown ups are, generally, not very good at chasing out shame. We tend to run from it instead. If we are just now learning to respond differently to people who tell us they have been hurt, it is a sign that we are beginning to understand the importance of chasing and shame out into the daylight. Shame, however has had years of experience hiding within us and we have to re-learn how to play the hide and seek game with it. We have to re-learn as adults what we knew as children. When we were kids, we knew the instant something felt wrong.
No one taught us then what to do about it and so sometimes we listened to that urge to keep it hidden. We let it take root and grow.
Thank goodness for the little children. Thank goodness for teaching our kids so that we can learn.