Part 1, Big boys don't cry and other myths.
Posted Sep 17, 2019
Historically, the premium placed on knowing rather than feeling in our culture has left people feeling that emotions are irrelevant or a nuisance and, even more damaging, that emotions are shameful.
Messages like: “You just need to think more positively!” or “You’ve been sad long enough! Get over it!” reflect a culture that even today “humorously” admonishes “Just rub some dirt on it!” when the distress of injury occurs. Because of this, of the nine affects (emotions) I teach students or clients about, I always start with the emotion of shame.
It’s important to begin to understand our experience of shame because we can feel ashamed of many things, including feeling ashamed of any number of the other affects (emotions) we have. And, when this happens, shame can “bind” those emotions so that we shut down, dismiss or numb out the important information emotions signal us.
A “shame bind” is like an emotional bypass of whatever feelings were “not allowed.” Maybe as a child you learned to zip past anger because it was labeled “bad” to be angry in your family. Instead, you stayed silent, then landed in feelings of shame because secretly you knew you had those “bad” feelings. Therefore, you never got the information delivered by your anger; information that perhaps indicated a boundary had been crossed, or a personal preference trampled.
And, crazy enough, even as adults, this “binding” happens in milliseconds, so we may not even know what just happened. We may not know we were really angry a moment ago, but now we feel small or confused or like we want to hide. In those milliseconds we lose the “gift” of anger that tells us a boundary has been crossed. Instead, we may feel powerless or inadequate.
If we heard messages like “Big boys don’t cry” we may still be ashamed of our sadness. If we heard messages like “Don’t be ugly” when we became angry we may still trade the power of owning our anger for the sense of being a “bad person.” We may have been told to “toughen up” when we became afraid, triggering more fear and most likely shame. We may have learned that having certain feelings meant we’d be ridiculed, abandoned or left alone to deal with them. After all, we learned “there’s no crying in baseball.”
What shame messages did you get?
Begin to think about “shame messages” you got growing up. Those messages could have come from siblings, parents, extended family, the neighborhood, school or the culture at large. It could relate to your race, gender identity, economic status, education level, citizenship status, or family culture. The list is inexhaustible.
What emotions were shamed for you? If you’re male, it wouldn’t be a surprise if your fear or sadness were minimized. If you’re female it might be anger that was dismissed. What phrases did you hear? Common phrases have included things like “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to really cry about” in response to distress. Or you may have been called names like “wimp”, “baby”, “ingrate”, or “brat” for exhibiting a feeling.
Answering these questions for yourself will give you a clue to what emotions were “off-limits” and prone to shame binds.
What words describe your shame?
We have thousands of words for what we feel. We have nine basic emotions into which those words fit. If you find yourself using any of the words on the list* below, you’re likely in the territory of feeling some shame. Which of these words do you find in your vocabulary? Most importantly, which of these words do you use in dialogue with yourself? Do you use words like loser, failure, or inadequate in an inner dialogue? Good to note for future repair work!
How do you feel it when your shame has been triggered?
For me, beginning to understand my physical experience of shame took some time. It wasn’t as obvious. Are you aware of what shame feels like to you in your body? In the milder form, shame may feel like a sense of turning red. Some people describe feeling foggy and unable to think clearly. For some, it’s a sudden loss of energy. We do know that when shame “hits” there is a momentary loss of tonicity in the body.The body slumps, and generally our head lowers and turns to the right, breaking eye contact with any other person present.
Flipping the script: Carrying a lot of shame means you care about connection.
Shame has a lot of descriptions: “A sickness of the soul,” “A severing of the interpersonal bridge,” and more recently it’s been pronounced “never good” to have. There are thinkers, however, who disagree with a singular interpretation of shame as “bad.” Without a doubt, shame is bad when it reaches toxic proportions, either in individuals or societies. It’s more particularly bad, even horrific, when it is discharged in harmful ways towards oneself or others.
At the same time, in and of itself, shame is just like the other emotions. It is here to give us information. Shame, like all of the other emotions, evolved over eons to give us a survival advantage. And, when it’s triggered, what it’s signaling to us is that an important connection has been interrupted. That disconnection may be with another person(s). It may be a disconnection with your own good opinion of yourself. It may be a disconnection from an activity or idea you found engaging. Shame’s call to action leaves us to determine if the connection is important, healthy and/or possibly worth repairing. It lets us know we’ve lost something that matters, and points us to consider a move in the direction of reconnection. And, that is generally a good thing.
I’d like to leave you with one last thought in defense of shame. Shame is an emotion of connection and disconnection; it signals something interesting to us has been interrupted. When I meet people who manage a lot of shame, I’ve come to believe they foremost care about relationships. As a wise mentor once told me, “People who carry a lot of shame are people who have a tremendous capacity to love and who never give up hope of the “good scene around the corner.”
Anathema as it may sound, tolerating our shame, and embracing its invitation to evaluate if reconnection is important and healthy for us, might just be what the world needs.
(Shame Reframed: Part 2 will go into more detail about identifying your shame triggers; what behaviors can happen when shame is triggered (the compass of shame); and, how to tolerate and calm your experiences of shame so that connection is possible again.)
* Feeling Words for SHAME…HUMILIATION
When we find ourselves using any of these following words, we are more than likely, expressing the experience of shame.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Contact a qualified healthcare provider before implementing or modifying any personal growth or wellness program or technique, and with questions about your well-being. Copyright ©2019 Jennifer Lock Oman, LISW. All rights reserved.