After three months of rumbling, foreboding, and shaking, I think I finally get it. And, it’s huge. Clarity has arrived. She sent her sentries to stand guard while I unknowingly prepared, then she arrived and I was somehow ready.
The preparation started in February when a woman asked me why I studied a dark, terrible topic like shame. It got weird in March, when I stood in front of 100+ people and, rather than delivering my standard shame lecture, I gave a total shoot-from-the-hip talk on the importance of love – an indefinable, touchy-feely word I vowed to never use in my work. It escalated in April when I gave my parenting lecture in Houston (the one that I was so terrified to do that I actually considered faking a car wreck).
It got downright freaky in May when an amazing woman from my book club offered to analyze my hand and I said yes (totally unlike researcher-skeptic me). I cried the entire time, especially when she told me that my life purpose was love and that my life challenge is to live a life of emotional vulnerability and honesty. Finally, it all started to fall into place in June, when I launched this parenting series and taught an intensive summer course on shame resilience with 60 amazing graduate students (more to come on this).
I never intended to be a shame researcher. It just happened to me. I set out to study connection and I bumped into this dark, terrible emotion that unraveled connection faster and more violently than anything I’d ever seen. I learned that the emotion was shame and made a quick detour to study it for a couple of weeks. There wasn’t much information so I decided to stick around and do some digging.
I committed to staying long enough to get my head and heart around it. Eight years (and one breakdown/spiritual awakening) later, here I am. I get it. I know it in my head, I feel it in my heart, and, I can honestly say that I have a deep, soulful understanding of this universal emotion called shame. It is part of me. The hundreds upon hundreds of stories that people shared with me are resting comfortably in my bones.
But still the question: Why me? I’ve spent countless hours trying to understand my purpose. Why have I developed this intimate understanding of shame? What do I do with it? I’ve said it out loud in prayer: “No one likes this topic. No one wants to hear about this. Can’t I be here to know something easier? More likeable? Happier? At the least, can I have some gifts that are less revolting to people?”
I’m starting to understand that my work with shame has really been preparing me for the work that I’ll do around the ten guideposts that we’re exploring in this parenting series. I don’t think you can really understand loving-kindness, perfectionism, self-compassion, the sacredness of spirit, forgiveness, or any of these other guideposts without exploring shame. Shame plays two tapes in our heads: “never good enough” and “what will people think.” These are the messages that crush self-compassion and loving-kindness, fuel perfectionism, and move us away from authenticity.
I’ve never said anything like this before, but I truly believe that we’ll never fully know the light until we’ve walked through the darkness. We’ll never know courage until we explore our fears. We won’t find compassion without knowing why we blame, judge and rage. Until we venture into the dark, we’ll stay so afraid of disconnection that we won’t risk actually becoming connected.
Carl Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. This procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not very popular.”
This is my work and I can honestly say that I’ve come to love it.
The parenting CD has two tracks dedicated to shame resilience and parenting: CD1, track 5 (41 minutes) and CD2, track 7 (30 minutes that I recorded at the studio based on questions I received from the audience). Rather than transcribing what’s there, I’m posting a segment from the Connections Curriculum DVD (this is part of a teaching tool that comes with a psychoeducational curriculum for mental health professionals). There is 3-part interview series from PBS here and an op/ed on shame here. If you’re interested in learning more about the definition of shame and the critical differences between shame and guilt, there is another clip from Connections curriculum here. If you want more specifics about shame (stories, examples, etc.), I suggest the book. If you want more parenting-specific information, that’s on the CD.
Once we have a solid understanding of shame and how it operates in our own lives, there are three concrete strategies that will make a significant difference in our children’s level of shame resilience.
#1 – Shame is universal – we all have it. We are also all capable of using it with our children. We are the most vulnerable to shaming our children when we are feeling inadequate and judged. We need to understand our own vulnerabilities to shame – what are our triggers? Shame feels intensely personal, but it is a social emotion. It grows in families. We can’t pull our kids out of shame if we’re sinking in it.
#2 – Parent from an understanding of the differences between shame and guilt. Based on the research that I discuss on the CD, I think it’s safe to say that we would all like our children to use guilt self-talk, rather than shame self-talk. It’s just not easy to focus on behaviors rather than people, especially if we were raised with the belief that shaming is a good way to change behavior or that shame is a helpful moral compass.
It’s hard to hear that parenting is the greatest predictor of shame or guilt proneness in children (will they say, “I’m bad” or “That was a bad decision”). It feels like a lot of pressure, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity.
#3 – 85% of the men and women interviewed remembered a shame experience in school or sports that has had a tremendous impact on them as adults. The vast majority said it “changed their lives” or “charted a course for the rest of their lives.” As parents, we don’t have control over all of these moments; however, we do have significant influence over the impact of these experiences. If we raise our children with shame resilience, it is less likely that these experiences will become “defining moments.” (This is why I went back and recorded the additional track on the four elements of shame resilience).
I like to use the album metaphor. If a child is shamed at school and has enough resilience to talk about it, we essentially take that snapshot, crop it down, and stick it in an album that is full of offsetting positive experiences. If there is no open discussions of shame in our homes, and a child is literally too ashamed to even discuss it with a parent, the experience is filed into their album as a whopping 8X10 and there are no other photos to balance it out.
If you have strategies and/or struggles that you’d like to share, I think we can all learn something from your experiences and questions! Sharing our stories and ideas is essential to shame resilience.