As a mom of three little boys, I desperately want this world to be better. I want my boys to someday live in a world where people with a certain skin color aren’t more likely to be shot, a world where people do not become divided and hateful because of healthcare choices or sexual orientation, a world where people and children aren’t slaughtered for believing in a different God or in no god.
But I fear that world will never exist if we don’t start soul-searching and having important conversations within our families. You see, having been in the field of psychology for almost ten years, I know that both hate and love begin with early experiences, but hate ends with individual awareness…
The Purpose of Life.
Last year, my oldest son was in Kindergarten at St. Martin’s Lutheran School in Annapolis. His teacher, Mrs. Glava, was one of those organized, “together,” people. I was (and am) not. I would often lose or accidentally throw away book order forms, field trip permission slips, and homework assignments, and I would frequently be the only mom who forgot to send her child to school with a dollar for “ice cream Wednesday.” One day, Mrs. Glava kindly let me know that my son was “the only child who didn’t bring back an order form for the class’s home-made book;” She didn’t want my son to feel left out when everyone else was excitedly receiving their books that they had worked so hard to create.
A quiet whisper resonated in the back of my mind: How embarrassing, Angelica! You lost an order form again? Just lie and tell her you never got it. Or lie and tell her that your son didn’t want to order the book after-all. She must think you’re such an idiot.
But something—desperation?—came over me. Instead, I broke down and told Mrs. Glava the truth: “We are in the middle of a move; I just had to fly to Wisconsin for a funeral; My husband is traveling, and I am hanging on by a thread. I had a little break-down the other night, screamed at the kids to just watch a movie, and tearfully threw away every scrap of clutter in the house. The order form, I’m afraid, is long-gone.”
And Mrs. Glava didn’t say anything. She just reached out and hugged me. A good, strong, intentional hug. That was all.
In that moment, relief and contentment washed over me as this woman embraced me– this organized, meticulous woman, who could have easily rolled her eyes and placed a superior divide between the two of us, but instead chose to accept and honor me. It was just a few seconds, and it was not going to end any wars or put an end to racism or make my homophobic doorman love his gay son, BUT in that moment I knew that the research was true, and the Dhali Llama knew what he was talking about: The purpose and meaning of life is to experience moments of authentic connections with others.
A Barrier to Connection:
Researcher Brene Brown, conducted years of qualitative research to find, among other conclusions, that there is one fundamental difference between people who experience the fulfillment of love and connection in their lives and people who do not. The people who experience love and connection simply feel that they are worthy of it.
Further, Brown found that there were four characteristics of people who feel they are worthy of love and connection: These people display courage, compassion, connection, and vulnerability. The courage to be who they really are, even if that meant risking rejection or disapproval; kindness to themselves and others; willingness to reach out and connect to others; and willingness to take emotional risks.
There is just one thing that gets in the way of courage, compassion, connection, and vulnerability: Shame.
That quiet voice that urged me to lie when I stood in front of Mrs. Glava, was the voice of shame. Shame is different from judgment. I might make a matter-of-fact value judgment that losing my child’s paperwork or yelling at my child is not a good idea. However, with judgment, it is the behavior that is unacceptable, not the person. The shame-filled person feels inferior, inadequate, powerless, and worthless when he misses a project deadline, while the person without shame simply sees his procrastination as regrettable and instills a better time-management strategy. Where there is the quiet voice of shame, the behaviors of courage, compassion, connection, and vulnerability cannot be accessed.
The Game of “Shame Hot Potato.”
Shame is the stealth backbone of the separation of “us vs. them.” Its assault on our worth fuels anger, racism, and even wars. Categorical separation of other groups of humans gives us the illusion that we are “good enough,” because we are “better than.” On an individual level, the terrifying fear of inadequacy or powerlessness compels us to do some nasty things to make it go away. We turn to drinking, drugging, medicating, promiscuity, over-eating, spending money that we don’t have, and belittling our loved-ones. Shame becomes passed along like a “hot potato” that nobody wants to feel, and that can be spewed onto others by our superiority and separation.
Shame is, unfortunately, a part of the human condition (save for psychopaths), and is passed down in families, and in generations. The message that “you are not good enough” is something that even well-meaning, self-aware parents inevitably instill in their kids from time to time. Despite the fact that I try to be a conscious parent, I found myself playing a game of “shame hot potato” with my son the other day.
Recently, my six-year old wasn’t cleaning his room, despite my giving him multiple reminders to stay on task. I urgently needed him to listen, not because I needed his room to be clean, but because I feared my own inadequacy as a parent. I needed him to put his clothes in the hamper and cups in the trash can to prove my effectiveness and value as a parent. So I reactively started yelling at him as my means to regain competency and eliminate my shame. Of course, my son felt diminished and “not good enough,” and by the end of my critical tirade, he was fighting back tears. He was shamed. Yes, I later attempted to heal my emotional injury while maintaining that he had to clean his room. But, sadly, I know that if this becomes a common interaction, by son will go on to play to game of “shame hot potato” with his brothers, his friends, and eventually his wife and kids.
So how do we go about resisting the parasite that is shame?
Awareness is a good place to start. If your spouse forgets your anniversary, or your boss doesn’t implement your idea, or your friend doesn’t invite you to a party, what is the feeling that comes up for you? Chances are, it is a vulnerable pain that lies beneath the reactive anger. The couples that I see in therapy that have the best prognosis are the ones who can pinpoint their shame—They can label their fears of inadequacy, their worthlessness, their powerlessness, and they can often vulnerably relate those feelings back to something they experienced in their childhood. Where there is awareness of feelings, it is difficult to reactively engage in the game of “shame hot potato,” by criticizing, diminishing, or numbing your feelings.
“Me too:” We’re more the same than different.
As Brene Brown says, the phrase, “Me too” is the antidote to shame. When we can dig deep to find the similarities between us and others, instead of the differences, we stop shame in its tracks. Validating means thinking that another person’s feelings or behaviors are understandable, and empathy means viewing them as relatable.
When I worked with prisoners in maximum security prisons, in order to make any therapeutic progress, I had to dig deep to say “me too.” I had to become in touch with that part of me that was just like that prisoner, that part of all of humanity that, if deprived and hungry enough for acceptance and power and approval, will do some horrible things to achieve it. If we looked at our children’s avoidance of homework and chores, our teenager’s desire to have sex, our spouse’s desire to zone out on the computer, as understandable, we would spare ourselves and our kids the shame of inadequacy. If we also empathized with them, we would be giving them the gift of love and connection, even in the event that we would like to change their behavior. It can be just as difficult to look at the woman screaming at her child in Target and dig deep to think of a time when you were just as emotionally fragile and desperate and say “me too.”
As a way to heal my son’s shame, I told him the story about how much I hated cleaning my room when I was young, and how my mom had to angrily remind me fifty times to stay on task. He smiled a little, his shame felt less heavy, and we connected. Maybe he will say “me too” to his kids someday, even when he is trying to get them to do chores and homework that they resist.
When my 5-year old son witnessed a purse-snatching at the mall, he wondered curiously, “why didn’t the robber’s mommy teach him that stealing is bad?” I adored my son’s capacity for love and innocence in that moment, and imagined his thinking to be something like this: The robber must not have been an innately bad person; he must have simply not been taught such a lesson; If his mommy had taught him about stealing, he would not be stealing. We are all the same; Our behaviors are just influenced by our experiences and how we are taught and treated. Some-day I want my kids and the world to understand the frightening, yet comforting truth in that line of thinking.
An Important Practice and Dialogue
In order to practice awareness, empathy, and view others as “more the same than different,” one more thing has to happen. We need to accept the realities of ourselves first and foremost. A parent that accepts that she doesn’t have control, and that she is doing her imperfect best, would have no reactive urge to shame her son. A husband that sees himself as worthy and adequate, imperfections and all, would openly discuss his observation that his wife no longer initiates sex instead of diminishing her or harboring his own shame.
If we want to start making a change in our society of shame and separation, our conversations and behaviors need to be deliberate. Within our families and relationships and groups of friends, we need be aware, of even our negative feelings, and willing to heal any pain through connection instead of through separation, superiority, and anger.
And if we are raising the next generations to make the world a little better, our messages to our kids should be, “It is always understandable that you feel how you feel and okay to be who you are, even if I am going to do my job as a parent and make you do your chores and your homework and keep you safe and teach you manners.” Our conversations and actions should also relay that “It makes sense that others feel how they feel and be who they are; In fact, let’s dig deep and put ourselves in their shoes.” We need to teach our kids and the world that we are all more the same than different, yes, even when taking about the kid who doesn’t speak English, the kid in the wheelchair, and even the guy that stole the purse at the mall.
And we need to kick the shame-voice to the curb in exchange for this self-talk: I make mistakes and am scared and hurting and imperfect and fallible, but I am worthy of holding my head up high. I accept myself. I’m sorry when I cause others pain, and simply try again for better. You’re okay. Me too.
These are the conversations, behaviors, and mindsets that threaten to stop shame in its tracks and start to spread culture where love, connection and acceptance triumphs over fear, separation, and superiority.
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