Today on my facebook feed I saw this:
Immediately I was taken back to various times I was shamed as a kid. No specific instances, but the feeling of being shamed. The lowering of my eyes, my head, my heart, my being.
The thing is, when I was a kid I didn’t know exactly what was happening. I just knew you felt bad. I didn’t know how to articulate myself that I was not a bad person, even if I might have done a bad thing.
My mom’s been dead and gone for more than 20 years now and I can still hear her voice in my head when I make mistakes in my life. Or even if mistakes are made in general, that I, of course, (must have) had something to do with.
“Dian, what did you do?”
Because I was taught by shaming that everything that goes wrong must be my fault, even if that wasn’t my mom’s intention. I immediately begin wracking my brain for the little thing I might have done to contribute to whatever wrong thing happened. And then once I find the thing I think I did, I begin thinking of ways to get around getting blamed for it. Because being blamed means being shamed; one was synonymous with the other.
I think of the lies I will tell so I don’t get in trouble. I think of other things I might have been doing instead, or some reasonable sounding thing I could have been thinking about in order to make me have done such a thing, if I do get found out.
All of that in a 10-second span out of fear of being shamed again. By a woman who’s been dead for 25 years.
I still have to practice actively considering if it’s safe to tell the truth or not. Growing up, it wasn’t always safe in my house to tell the truth. Sometimes my mom would blow up at me, rage against the machine. I saw my mom as rage and me, the machine as a teenager. I had to be a machine and do everything right, perfect, without flaw, else suffer the repercussions. Sometimes, even in the smallest of situations.
Even as I’ve grown older (and progressed after years of therapy), the feeling, the behavior, the habit stays with me.
Take a few weeks ago when my wife was traveling. I stopped on the way home to get a burger from McDonalds because I just didn’t have the energy to make something — or pull food out of the fridge and reheat it.
After finishing my burger and fries I threw away the bag and before my wife got home from her trip I took the trash down to the dumpster so she wouldn’t see the remnants of my failure to be a good wife and eat the food she’d made. Only an idiot would do that. Only a disrespectful child whose only concern in life was herself would do that. Only a bad person would do that.
I have to remind myself that this is not my wife speaking. This is not even me speaking. This is my mother speaking, and in her worst moments, at that.
The irony about that particular incident is that I left the receipt out on the counter and when my wife came home she saw I’d eaten McD’s anyway. She made a small (non-shaming) joke about it, we laughed, and it was over. No wrath. No shame. No one was right or wrong.
There are countless other times where, when asked what I had for lunch or dinner–the question out of sheer curiosity–I have had to fight myself to tell the truth if I didn’t have a homemade green salad with grilled chicken and steamed veggies. I have to remind myself that I’m an adult and I can eat what I want. I have to remind myself that I’m not a bad person, even if I chose a burger and fries over heating up some soup.
I love my mom. She was a great mom; except when she wasn’t, of course. I don’t begrudge her for the mistakes she made as a parent. I also don’t want to be a victim of her mistakes my entire life.
My mom’s death when I was 16 had me grow up way too fast. And still, it took years and years (ten of them) of therapy before I was able to understand that I was (am) a worthy human being, regardless of the mistakes I make. That even though the mistakes I make have an impact on other human beings, I am not a bad or disrespectful or worthless human being because I made the mistake.
If shame is a part of how you raise your kids, you’re not a bad person. And also, there’s room for change to be a better parent. To teach your kids that making a mistake is not the same thing as being a bad person.
And if you grew up like me, thinking that every mistake was another drop in the [Your Name Here] is Worthless Bucket, practice being kind to yourself as you come to learn that only you get to decide what yourself worth is tied to, and it doesn’t have to be your mistakes.