As my earliest memory of shame, I’m intrigued by the things I don’t remember. I don’t remember what I did to get into trouble. I don’t remember who the teacher was. I don’t remember any of my classmates. I don’t really remember what the classroom looked like. I don’t remember what happened to get me out of trouble. I assume that, at some point, the teacher decided I’d paid my debt and released me from time-out to rejoin my peers. But I don’t remember that.
Here is what I do remember: I remember sobbing. I remember being very angry. I was angry that the teacher was punishing me; I was angry that my peers were watching; I was angry that I’d done something wrong. I also remember feeling guilty. Whatever it was I got in trouble over, I knew I’d done it and that it was something deserving of punishment. My guilt had perhaps a touch of defiance: I had done it and I wouldn’t pretend I hadn’t. And yet, more than anything, my guilt was about regret, because whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t worth the humiliation and pain I was then experiencing.
More than anything, I remember wanting to disappear. I wanted to hide from the looks of my classmates. I can recall my recognition that each of them had at one point been where I was, but at that moment, it was me and not them. Their expressions were a mix of pity and relief and they burned me. I didn’t want them to see me crying, but their seeing me made me cry harder. It seems reasonable to guess that I had perhaps experienced emotions of guilt, anger, embarrassment, sadness, and regret before that moment. But the hot burning sensation of all of these emotions – the deep, overwhelming shame – well, this was new and terrible and I’ll never forget it.
This foundational memory was brought to the surface of my consciousness yesterday when I picked up my daughter who was obviously having her own foundational shame experience. The signs became painfully obvious and right away and it didn’t take long for me to recognize what was happening to her.
When I walked in, she was standing by herself playing with some blocks. She refused to look at me, even when I said her name.
The teacher explained that she “might be a little upset.” She told me my daughter had just gotten out of time-out for coloring on another classmate’s paper. Three times the teacher told her to stop, but she didn’t.
I told my daughter to get her coat, that we were going to eat dinner with her grandparents. She announced to the room, “I’m going to my Grandmom’s house!” But it wasn’t with delight or glee; it was clearly in anger and defiance. She might as well have added, “And none of you can come!”
Robin (not his real name), the victim of my daughter’s errant coloring, then came over to show me his artwork. He, with great animation, pointed to a large swath of yellow on an otherwise unimpressive drawing of who-knows-what and said, “This is what she did!” With that, my daughter burst into tears and ran from the room into the hallway. The teacher apologized, offering that this was the first time she’d had to correct my child. Of course, I assured her no apology was necessary, that she’d done the right thing. And in that moment, I could feel my own foundational shame coming back to the surface, albeit with a new adult distance of respect. If my child needs correcting, I want her to get it, I thought. And I also thought, oh I hate that she has to feel what she’s feeling right now.
I went out into the hall and found her sobbing in a corner. I put her jacket on and held her hand as we walked to the car.
“Can you tell me what’s making you cry?” I asked as gently as I could.
“I didn’t finish my artwork!” she wailed.
I waited a moment, and asked, “Is that really why you’re crying?”
“I had a rough day,” she admitted as I buckled her in. “I got put in time-out.”
“What did you do to get put into time-out?”
“Robin said I colored on his paper, but I didn’t!”
“Why would Robin say that?”
“I don’t know! He’s telling stories!”
I didn’t believe her for a second. And in that moment, I comprehended her shame so clearly: it hurt so bad to be seen, by her teacher and her classmates and now her own father, that she was resorting to lying. She was that desperate to hide.
“Please don’t lie to me,” I said. “Your teacher said she saw you.” I waited a moment. “Sometimes we mess up and do bad things and get in trouble. I want you to be honest with me. Did you color on Robin’s paper?”
Whimpering, she nodded, “Mmm hmm.”
“So Robin wasn’t telling stories, was he?”
“Why did you lie to me?”
She said, “I didn’t want you to find out.”
Which, of course, makes no sense on the surface. The teacher told me right away, not to mention Robin himself. I’d already found out. You can’t unfind things out.
And yet… wow. How many times have I tried to fudge my way out of a painful truth? When I was fifteen, I snuck out of the house with my friend during a sleepover. When we came back to the house, my parents were up and looking for us. It was immediately clear we’d been caught, and yet I still scrambled back into my room through the window desperately trying to come up with a story that would explain away where we’d been and why nothing was wrong. Even now as an adult, I catch myself trying to minimize my mistakes, shift blame away from myself, downplay any negative effects. Ultimately, I wonder, if we all try to weasel out of responsibility not because we’re afraid of the consequences of our mistakes, but because it feels so toxic to be seen making them.
I tried to go for the teaching moment in the car with my daughter. I told her I wanted her to be honest with me, and honesty meant admitting our mistakes and accepting the consequences. I told her I loved her, even when she did things wrong. I told her we can learn from when we do bad things, and that everyone does them. I promised her that if she always told me the truth, even about things she did wrong, that I would try to be more patient and calm than if she lied and tried to cover over her mistakes. I don’t know if any of that will sink in; it’s the parental duty to snatch a teaching moment, even if it doesn’t take, so I went for it. But what I really wanted to do for her, even in the teaching, was to help her tolerate being seen messing up. So I told her again that I loved her.
There’s no shaking our shame. Shame is some goddamn potent shit, no question. I still have plenty of my own shame still lying around; to this day I can feel the hot rise in my cheeks remembering my preschool classmates watching me cry in the corner. And that’s just my earliest memory of shame; if I were ranking my most intense memories of shame, that one wouldn’t make the top five. Even with all that shame that still follows me around, what helps me heal, what keeps me from collapsing under its crippling weight, is the very thing that feels so lethal: being seen.
I know deep, deep down in my darkest depths the burning, consuming fire of shame that comes with being seen as we falter. I know, too, how poisonous it feels when the eyes seeing us belong to those we love the most. This is the most insidious irony of all: the eyes that are actually the most forgiving usually feel the most deadly. More than teaching her honesty, I wanted to teach her that being seen by those who love us can be healing. I sure wish I had learned that truth sooner.