Teach Children to Know Their Shame

Shame, I think. Necessary for our good behaviour, devastating to be exposed to. I really thought I said both during my talk last night, but a woman in the audience commented: “It’s the shamelessness that is devastating! And that’s what is spread today when parents don’t want their children to feel ashamed. “

Is that true? Do moms and dads help their children to escape the shame? If so, they’re doing their children a disservice.

We know little about what that feeling is doing to us, really. As a feeble embarrassing moment, when we easily blush or put our hand over our eyes, or as the uncomfortable  experience of making a fool of ourselves – the shame is nothing to fear. On the contrary – we need to get to know the gentle and guiding shame, the one that is on our side, to build up a resistance to the toxic and excluding shame, the one that makes us want to merely disappear. Or just getting out of there. Or hoping the floor would an open right under our feet. That feeling is actually hard to tolerate. In its extreme, it becomes a desire to literally disappear from the Earth . That kind of shame is nothing but devastating.

Yes, the signs of shame exists on the scale from suicide in one end to a light blush in the other. No other emotion can make us feel so lonely. Still that same emotion is our best guide into connection and community.

So, if you are a parent to small children: teach them to get to know their shame.

Doesn’t this sounds aqward? Oh yes, because we have no other sense in the body when we hear the word shame than a horrible feeling of unworthyness – maybe because of memories from when we were punished and left alone until we become obedient again. That was not a good way to teach children to know their shame: Never leave them alone after you have had that strong “bad you”-attitude. If you needed to react – for any good reason – explain what happened, why you needed to be severe and keep track of if your child’s shame feeling is relevant. Shower them with your love and understanding of how tough it is to feel stupid!!! And that it’s only about something they’ve done, not who they are. Shame gets its proper proportions by being met with empathy.

If met this way, children will also become familiar with the mild shame, which occurs automatically as soon as we want to be part of any community. In the very moment we know we want to belong somewhere, we also get scared of being rejected, left outside. That fear is the mere shame, and it fires off right away. And we can’t help it; that’s how we are wired and that’s how we function as social human beings. Whenever we approach a group we want to belong to, in the classroom, at the party, at work, we want to know how to behave properly. Any time we actually violate some unwritten norm,  the level of shame raises. Shit, how embarrassing …

Ashamed by Goran Larsson

View the mild shame as a guide, and guide your child through the horrible feeling when it occurs – and in fact could be there for a reason which you can explain. All human beings, big adults as well as small children, do not always do the right thing. When we’ve failed and are to blame ourselves, we also feel stupid. Don’t try to remove your child’s feeling of being stupid, but explain how thoughts can lead us completely wrong: When we feel embarrassed, children as well as adults, we easily fantasize that our mistakes will make us left out. That we won’t be included in the community because we’ve been stupid. That’s not true, but our thoughts don’t understand stuff like that. On the other hand, exclusion can become true if we practice our ability to turn off our shame. Shamelessness is nothing but disrespectful.

Today, right now in our time, we need to know much more about what shame is and what shame is doing to us and how shame feels – because the tools to humiliate others have become so incredibly strong. The number of suicides due to cyber-bullying increases dramatically in the world. Other people’s compassion and empathy is the only antidote to crippling shame. But to be able to empathize with others, we must of course know for ourselves how shame feels in our bodies, in our hearts. The best way is to train ourselves to endure mild shame and have had experience of how to proceed when we’ve done something shameful. This is important also when we need to resist others shameful attempts to put unrighteous shame upon us.

Monica Lewinskys Ted Talk has been shown almost four million times in just over a month. The reason why she talks about her own public humiliation in 1998 when she barely could carry on living, is to draw attention to the growing online bullying consequences.

That’s why we should teach our children how to know their shame.

Monica Lewinsky, 41, once in the service of President Bill Clinton with whom she fell in love as a 22-year-old. 

Jon Ronson, how we destroy ordinary people’s lives instead of raising our voices against injustice.

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