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Are You Secrectly Ashamed of Your Kid?

Showing up cuts shame down to size.

Most of the time, shame emanates from some imagined defect in ourselves. But as you probably know from your own experience, you can also feel shame about family members whom you believe reflect poorly on you. I call this "secondhand shame"

Paula began therapy with me shortly after her 16-year-old son, Cliff, burned down a small building. He didn't intend to set the building on fire. He was, in his words, "just messing around." But he had acted impulsively and unwisely, and had caused a disaster. The event was front-page news in a small community where people had already been gossiping about what a loser this boy was, how he was turning into "a low-life," and how damaged Cliff had been by his parents' acrimonious divorce and "broken home."

"I feel tainted," Paula told me in therapy. "It's like the shame of my son is oozing on to me." She felt the same about her ex-husband, whom she described as an "unsavory character" who spent most of his free time in local bars. Her language-"oozing onto me"--captures the visceral sense that shame is poured onto us from the outside.

Shame wasn't the only emotion that Paula experienced. She also felt anger at Cliff for screwing up and "causing" her to look bad. In addition, she felt fear and worry about his future, and guilt about her past parenting mistakes. Finally, she felt anger toward others whom she saw as judgmental, especially people in the community who labeled Cliff a "loser," as though his bad behaviors were the sum total of who he was.

This confusing tangle of emotions made it even harder for Paula to approach the crisis with her son in a thoughtful, solution-oriented way.

Paula's anger was a healthy response toward the people who judged her by Cliff's behavior. A child's behavior is not a mirror reflecting back the good or bad job we have done. While Paula was responsible for her own actions, she was not responsible for her son's behavior, which she could influence, but not control. But shaming and blaming messages to mothers are everywhere in the culture. Paula was not immune.

Shame breeds more shame. Whenever Paula went out in public she would keep her head down, averting her eyes. She preferred to stay home. But the more she withdrew, the larger her shame grew. She became anxious and even a bit paranoid about gossip, assuming, in the absence of facts, that she and Cliff remained everyone's favorite topic of conversation.

I doubted that this was so, because gossip gets old quickly and folks usually move on to new people to buzz about. But just as in the workplace, gossip will increase if the gossiped-about party begins to withdraw. In the absence of face-to-face contact, other people's fantasies and projections flourish.

I told Paula that if she was concerned about gossip, she needed to stop hiding out and begin connecting with the very people she saw as critical. If she found it too difficult to mention her son's difficulties, she could banter about the latest movie or the weather. Only through one-on-one contact would gossip and shame loosen their grip.

Paula rose to the occasion. She held her head high and forced herself to approach people, make eye contact and chat. In response to the question, "How are you doing?" Paula responded "Fine, and you?" or "I'm hanging in there," or "Well, as you may know, this is a hard time for me." Her particular response depended on her mood at the time and who was doing the asking.

Sometimes, Paula used humor to lighten things up. Once, she found herself in a conversation with several women about one of their daughters who was featured in the newspaper for her outstanding academic achievements. Paula laughed and said lightly, "Well, if my son gets his picture in the paper again, I have a feeling it's not going to be because he's a National Merit Scholar!" The other women laughed with her, in a supportive, all-our-kids-are-trials kind of way.

Step by step, Paula cut her shame down to size. She forced herself to show up. She practiced talking to others with a dignity she did not at first feel. She acted as though she had nothing to be ashamed of, and in the process of pretending, she moved closer to believing this truth. She began to hear from other desperate mothers about their high-maintenance, crazy-making kids.

In the openness, lightness and humor of friendship, Paula began to find her situation bearable. She was learning one of life's essential lessons: That what we believe is most shameful and unique about our selves is often what is most human and universal. And we need to show up.

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