Shame, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. ~Julie Burchill
My summer reading has been defined by the works of Brene Brown. I plowed through her three titles: "I Thought It Was Just Me, But It Isn't", "The Gifts of Imperfection" as well as her latest, "Daring Greatly."
Active reader that I am, all three books are chock full of my handwritten notes at this point. Needless to say, I highly recommend all of them.
My interest in Brown's work was prompted by a TED TV talk she taped a few years ago on the subject of shame and vulnerability. So intrigued by the video, it became a catalyst for me to learn more about the role these emotions play in our lives.
Both [shame and vulnerability] are words we tend to throw around without a good working definition of what they really mean. Here is how Brown defines each:
Shame - the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.
Vulnerability - Where courage and fear meet, not always a comfortable spot...but never weakness. The only true way to connect with others. The core, the heart, the center of meaningful experiences.
Connection and acceptance by others IS the essence of our life. It is why we are here. Shame, on the other hand, is based in fear of disconnection. Shame is the voice of perfectionism.
Each of us contends with shame, to some degree, every day. Currently a silent epidemic, shame even permeates our entertainment culture (ie: all those reality t.v. shows we secretly indulge in because we have a sick fascination with watching others succeed or fail).
People who spend more time and energy in denial of, or working to cover up the shame they experience, suffer from it the most.
Shame can be projected onto others in the form of blame, anger, disrespect, condescension, arrogance and judgment.
In my opinion, the most poignant discovery in Brown's research is this: Much of the shame each one of us copes with everyday comes from experiences we had when we were children. Situations we may not even remember involving parents, teachers, even other children. It is almost as if shame has been ingrained into our subconscious, and it can affect every area of our life.
Including how we parent our children.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a really difficult time talking to my dad about anything other than "surface" topics (how are you/what's new/kids are doing fine...you get the picture). I can remember a handful of times while growing up when I needed to talk with my dad about "heavier" issues, and I chose to write him letters instead. Which may sound odd, but I did this so I could say everything I wanted to say and not get too emotional in the process.
Because my dad had this look he gave me. "The look" would immediately bring me to tears. I didn't understand it at the time, and I couldn't stop my reaction either. The older I got the more I tried to hold it in, yet my tears always betrayed me. I could never figure out how a "look" could made me cry. I didn't know if I cried because I was mad, sad, frustrated...I just could not put my finger on it.
Until I read Brene Brown's work.
Upon reflection, I now understand when on the receiving end of the "look" I was feeling deep shame. In my heart I knew I had disappointed my dad [for whatever reason] and I felt I was a horrible person for doing so.
Parenting by shame makes a child feel bad about the person he/she IS, not about the behavior they exhibited. Shame can be conveyed through words and/or actions. The look my dad gave me was accompanied by a tone he used that let me know where I stood.
Which made me feel very small.
I will tell you I know my dad loves me very much. But I also know the times in my life (as a child/teenager) when I disappointed my dad come to mind more readily than the happier times. I don't know how to change that feeling.
I'm not writing about this subject because I want to blame my dad for anything. I think my dad has always done the best job he could do given what he knew. And kids absolutely need to be corrected and given consequences when they misbehave.
What reflecting on my shame experiences in life does for me is to fuel my passion to be a parent who can learn along the way, a parent who can be open to being wrong in my parenting, and a parent who knows when to apologize to whom God has entrusted to my care.
Unless we are really conscious of what we are saying and doing (be it in our marriage, our parenting, our career) we will execute [live] what we learned growing up.
Although there is no way to completely eliminate the shame in our lives, there is a way to manage shame called "shame resilience".
If you are interested in learning more about how to process and limit the shame you feel, pick up Brown's books, they are well worth the read for both personal and parenting application.
Shame resilience, like life in general, takes practice...it is a journey, not a destination.