George Bernard Shaw said, “We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinion, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins.”
The concept of shame can often be misunderstood and confused with guilt. The “cliff note” definition is we feel guilty for what we do and we feel shame for what we are. There are basically two types of shame, healthy shame and toxic shame. Healthy shame lets us know when our actions have gone too far (such as alerting us that we are not the center of the universe), it is the foundation of our conscience. Toxic shame is feeling we are defective and unworthy (for example, “You can never do anything right! Why can’t you be more like your brother?!”) This type of shame has been “given” to you by another. Meaning, we generally shame others as we ourselves have been shamed.
By the time we are an adult we have approximately 25,000 hours of tapes in our heads of repetitive words, actions, and messages about who we are at the core of our being. By the time we are an adult we truly believe we are either adequate or inadequate as a person.
Many experts say shame may play a major role in a host of personal and social problems, such as eating disorders, drug abuse, compulsions, depression, anxiety and rage issues. This powerful emotion has its roots in childhood, but as an adult it becomes a lifelong struggle to heal shame in order to feel worthwhile and good about oneself. The younger we were shamed the more embedded it is in our psyche.
Why have I chosen this topic and how is it related to parenting?
I believe we often go unconscious when reacting to our children for any reason we deem unacceptable or narcissistically embarrassing. This “unconscious” process stems from somewhere, it did not just appear. We are not born “defective”. Hence, the title: generational shame.
As a parent it is paramount that our child experiences our empathy, presence, compassion, and limit setting. So that when they have a temper tantrum and we are exasperated we do not abandon them emotionally. On the contrary, this is when they need you to “hold” them physically and emotionally the most.
This is challenging, especially if we were not treated with the same tolerance and acceptance of our own emotional outbursts as a child. I don’t know about you but I was spanked on occasion and I cannot tell you why I was spanked – I just remember feeling scared, terrified and sore. It taught me to be afraid of adults and authority figures, it did nothing for my sense of self.
As a biased mother of four beautiful children I have been afforded the presence of mind and foresight not to use physical punishment or abusive shame to get my child to “shape up.” And, guess what? They are really good kids, full of opinions and who feel safe in their home. I did not pass the baton of shame. I may not be perfect, but I’m certainly not abusive.
How can we help ourselves to stay present in our interactions with our children?
I think “mindfulness” and reflecting on what might be going on in your child’s mind is a great start. When you find yourself getting impatient, irritated, exasperated, angry, and irritable, take a breath. Stop interacting. Reflect on your emotional state and how you could respond differently. Ask yourself what it is that’s being triggered inside of you? What is your child really saying with their words and actions? Why are they behaving the way they are?
These questions are what “reflective parenting” is all about; keeping your child’s mind, in mind. Reflective parenting is about a conversation and next week I’m going share different ways to engage in that conversation so that all of us have the opportunity to break the chain of generational shame.