Responding to Feelings of Shame

Warning: This might trigger difficult memories or emotions…

Is there something from your childhood which your family think is a great anecdote, but actually, makes you feel shame?

Do they frequently remind you of it and have a good laugh?

Is it impossible to speak to them about it and how it makes you feel? 

Brené Brown, an American research professor in The Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston, defines shame as follows:

…the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

I’ve blogged about shame once before, but although I published the post, I didn’t push it out there because I wasn’t sure how I felt about sharing one of my own childhood shaming experiences.

This week I’ve been reminded of this again in class. The Mum in question is conscientious and kind. When her little one looked like she might possibly bring a wooden toy down onto another child’s head, Mum moved faster than lightning with the intention of intervening and preventing injury.

What’s wrong with that? I hear you say. Anyone would, wouldn’t they?

In the moment, I stopped her. I was watching too and could see that although there was a possibility that a child might get a bit of a bump, it wasn’t inevitable. It was a split-second judgement and I might have been wrong, but the moment passed, and nothing came of it. The children continued to play alongside each other.

So, what? Well, it then transpired that there was a story behind the lightning movement. Mum told us of how, when she was little – no more than a toddler – she had caused a family friend’s little one an injury with a toy, resulting in a hospital visit. She doesn’t recall the incident herself but is still reminded of it to this day, by family and even by the family friend. It’s celebrated as quite a joke!

This is what shaming looks like. This is what we so innocently do to ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, to our children. This is what caused this kind, generous Mum of a sweet-natured toddler to jump up in fright.

This is huge, right? I hope this doesn’t trigger too much for you but I really think we need to talk about this. It’s one thing to experience this old shame as an adult but quite another to realise that we could be – and probably are – passing this on to our children.

In the scenario where I didn’t step in, what might have happened? Mum would have reached her little one and either picked them up with no warning or speedily taken the wooden toy out of their hands, all the while speaking in rushed, worried tones. Both children would have reacted, perhaps protesting the interruption, perhaps crying in shock. Mum’s shame would have burned brightly and her little one would only know that they had done something ‘wrong’. They just know. You can see it in their faces.

Isn’t this where shame begins? Isn’t this how it proliferates?

Wider society has issues with this in so many of its aspects and we can’t control most of them. If you’re a woman, you’re persuaded to conform to certain looks, fashions, ways of speaking, because otherwise you are ‘wrong’. As a man, the same things often apply, plus the added ‘need’ to be manly, strong and gentle. This is basic but just the beginning of the story. If you don’t fit in, the shame piles on. If you’re not resilient to that shame, the burden of it can be huge.

Learning to be resilient to shame ‘should’ start at home. If we are able to demonstrate or model respect and observation within our family environment – noticing when someone is feeling shamed and responding with kindness, love and empathy – we can surely go a long way to building and strengthening shame resilience in our children and all our loved ones.

As is so often the case, there are many connections with the work I do, and the seemingly infinite wisdom of the approach formulated by the amazing Emmi Pikler. Living in empathy, dealing with everyday aspects of myself that are triggered by shame, being kind firstly to myself and then to others – these are just some of the tools I have learned to use to build my own shame resilience and to pass on to others.

For more information about shame, shame resilience and how to deal with these aspects of ourselves, I highly recommend the works of Brené Brown. There are several to choose from, but this one - I Thought it Was Just Me (But it Isn't): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power - really speaks about identifying and dealing with our own shame stories.

If this has meant something to you, and you’d like to share, please either put a comment below or get in touch via my Contact Page.

Rachel TappingComment