Shame undermines the most important part of ourselves, that which believes we are enough, that we are seen and heard and deserving. Our childhood influences — family dynamics, the values we learned, the way we were raised — shape our legacy. We simply can’t deny how much the messages conveyed by our parents and families impacted us. Those early experiences mold our “storage battery,” holding the emotional and psychological impacts of our childhood — the good and the bad — in ways we’re often unaware of and influencing our behavior and communication. Being conscious of the messages we internalized growing up may help us avoid repeating the same mistakes or wounding our children and our important relationships.

In raising our consciousness we can come to understand ourselves better. Many of us don’t fully appreciate the importance of discovering the issues that fuel our choices, actions and relationships. If we blame others for the mistakes we make, we’ll never realize our behavior, attitudes and communication are driven by those deep-rooted emotional messages: “I’ve never believed I’m good enough,” or “I was always told I’d never succeed,” or “It’s too frightening to make any changes.” These messages usually come from a core of shame, blocking our ability to authentically connect in healthy relationships, believing we’re “not good enough.” Shame is likely the most agonizing and self-destructive of all emotions. That inner voice relentlessly taunts us with criticism and harsh judgment, leading to perfectionism.

After observing a mom I know publicly chastising her son, I asked how she thought her son must be feeling. She admitted not having given that much consideration, as she was more concerned with how other parents were judging her. She continued that she wanted him to feel ashamed of how unacceptable his behavior was. I asked if she recalled being publicly shamed as a child, to which she exclaimed: “So many times! If I dared misbehave, my parents made sure I paid dearly for it.” Being shamed by her parents taught her to behave appropriately, which is what she now expects of her children. Her lack of confidence and worry about being negatively judged are triggered by her children’s behavior. Shaming ensures our children won’t trust us to listen to them or understand their emotions. If we believe behavior is all that matters, then punishment may be effective.

Should we hope to have authentic connection with our children, what’s required is something quite different. When our child is misbehaving, he has an unmet need, something blocking him from being successful. By connecting to the emotional root rather than focusing on the surface (behavior), we’re letting him know we understand he’s struggling. For example: Your child is late getting ready for school once again. Frustrated, you believe he’s intentionally delaying getting dressed. Rather than shaming (“WHY are you always late? Can’t you ever get ready on time?! Never mind finding your blue shirt. Get dressed NOW”), try connective communication (“I know you’d love to stay home in your pajamas. It’s no fun getting out of your warm bed, rushing to get dressed and ready for school. I never liked getting up early for school either when I was your age”). His feelings are validated when you shift from anger and shaming to the emotions driving his lack of cooperation. Although his responsibility is to get ready on time, he’ll cooperate more willingly when feeling supported, accepted.

Another example: Your child shares that she hates her younger brother: “I wish Eben could live with a different family! I hate him!” Instead of shaming (“Don’t ever talk about your brother that way. Even when he’s bugging you, of course you still love him”), connect to the root of her feelings (“I understand your brother can be pretty frustrating. He often makes your life really hard, which makes you wish he’d just disappear”). When you accept her strong emotions, she feels understood and supported, with space to release her intense reactions without criticism. While this can be difficult to hear, strong sibling emotions are normal.

Of course we want our children to openly voice their feelings, both the positive as well as the negative. Just as we want to teach our children the importance of being assertive and maintaining healthy boundaries, we must model that shaming is not healthy or acceptable. None of us wants our opinions or feelings disparaged; should a family member, a friend, a colleague or neighbor do so, we must speak up to ensure we receive the respect and compassion we all deserve.

“Many of us will spend our entire lives trying to slog through the shame swampland to get to a place where we can give ourselves permission to both be imperfect and to believe we are enough.” — Brene Brown, Ph.D.

Please send me your questions.