“Shame on you.” My parent's favorite phrase to make us behave when we were kids. Three tiny words. A profound impact on my entire life.
As a first-hand witness to the disastrous effects shame has wreaked on my psyche, I’m amazed that anyone would want to intentionally shame a child (although if I am honest I think I have said it to my son – once.) Family dynamics are often so ingrained that in a moment of frustration or anger we revert to what we know best, even if we vehemently disagree with the tactic.
I find myself hesitating to write something about my mom that paints her as anything other than the giving, wonderful woman and friend that she is. If she had known I would weave shame into the fiber of my being, or that I would continue to shame myself long into adulthood, she would have found a different way to correct me when she thought it was necessary. But this story is begging to be told, encouraging me to learn from it and let it go.
It was 1980 and I was 9 years old. We were visiting my cousin’s newborn twins, and I was fascinated by the brown thing sticking out of the baby’s belly button. I hadn’t spent much time around newborns before, (although as I write this it occurs to me that my brother was 2 years old at the time, so either I never saw his umbilical cord stump or I was too young to remember.) I innocently asked my mom what the protrusion was, and her reaction to my question made me think that I had just revealed one of the great family secrets. She didn’t say “shame on you," but she didn’t have to. The way she shushed me and looked around to see if anyone had heard me made me think I had done something terribly wrong. To this day I don’t know why it embarrassed her so much or why she reacted that way.
There is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is something we have done, whereas shame is something we are. Shame is a fundamental belief about ourselves. Since I didn’t understand what I could have done wrong in this case (and many others), I internalized the belief that there must be something wrong with me. I didn't believe "I shouldn't DO that." I believed "I shouldn't BE that."
As an adult I realize that a great deal of my shameful feelings arose because I didn’t know what was expected of me. I knew I was supposed to be "good", but many times I felt shame for something I didn't realize was "bad". I wasn’t a mind reader, I was full of questions, and I didn't have the confidence to believe in myself no matter what anyone else thought. It was a recipe for a tsunami of shame.
After 42 years of living with shame, I've had enough. I'm ready to BE me - all of me - to be a better role model for my son. Will I make mistakes? Of course I will. But that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with me. It just means I’m human. It gives me the opportunity to teach my son that no one is perfect, not even me. As I continue to lift the veil of shame from myself, stretch past my self-limiting beliefs, and practice vulnerability, I not only break the cycle of shame, but allow both of us to grow into a new world of freedom and possibility.