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. It can be equally as difficult to look at the mother screaming at her child, dig deep to connect with the parts of us that are capable of being so desperate and exasperated, and think "me too."
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.
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.