It’s A Shame

Tzipora Shub, LCSW

I have a friend who used to say that there’s a special place in hell for people who cut their fingernails on a crowded train. I apologize for putting that image in your head but I would guess that place is not too far from the place of people who leave chewed up gum on a nice park bench. Neither of those I imagine though, is as bad as the place of the person who coined the phrase, “shame on you.”

This thought came to mind following an incident in my local grocery store last week. I was doing my shopping with my beautiful 3 and a half year old son who is funny and precocious and still likes using a pacifier at times (although usually at night). On that day he decided to take his pacifier along and we were doing our shopping when a woman came over. She looked at my son and said, “what's that in your mouth?” I was busy comparing shapes of noodles (elbows over ziti- life is full of tough decisions) and was only half paying attention. My son, who like I said is smart, saw where she was headed with her question. He ducked his head and looked away, but she kept talking, "how old are you? You're too big for a pacifier. Shame on you!" she walked away before either of us could say anything, although of course, as soon as I had processed what happened, several choice responses popped in to my head, some more print worthy than others. But the main gist of what I wanted to tell this woman about her unsolicited advice is that whatever damage she is concerned by son will have from sucking a pacifier at age three and a half is nothing compared to the damage he will incur if he is made to feel ashamed of it.

My son thankfully doesn't know what the word shame means but understood her disapproving attitude. I went in to my best mommy/therapist mode to help my son process what happened (Yes, I know some of you are probably nodding in recognition and others are rolling their eyes, along with my husband). We talked about what happened and how he felt. The moment passed and he was fine. But it got me thinking. About the opportunities for shame. Even from a complete stranger who somehow feels entitled to an opinion about my son’s pacifier use and has no qualms commenting on it. How many such comments are our children exposed to? By people who matter to them even more than a stranger in the grocery. In areas that matter even more and are even more fundamental to their sense of self. And without opportunity to process or reframe or laugh about silly ladies in grocery stores who say silly things.

So what is shame? Brene Brown, a well known researcher in the area of shame, defines shame as, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” It’s serious stuff.

When I free associate on the word shame, different words and images go through my mind. Deep. Pervasive. Powerful. One of the hardest things to treat. A force that gnaws away at the self image and self concept of people who are otherwise competent, capable, caring, wise. The voice that tells you you're not good enough, louder than anyone else can tell you otherwise.
A voice strengthened by incidents in schools, family systems, camps, grocery stores. Incidents that have strengthened a core belief of being damaged.


As people we have so much power to impact others; we need to consider our words. Do they breed shame? Pride? Confidence? Do we recognize how much power we have? Do we use it well? Because, if I’m brutally honest, maybe part of my negativity towards that woman’s shaming behavior is also towards my own. For while I would never use the words “shame on you,” there have certainly been times that I have used other words or facial expressions that convey a similar message. A message that we all need to be so careful not to be giving over. A message so destructive. A message that keeps many therapists in business for way too long.

Brene Brown shares the antidote to shame saying, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” So at the same time that we watch our words and faces, we can also be engaging in shame reduction. By hearing people’s stories and reaching out with compassion and understanding.

As for my son, he is still using a pacifier. And I couldn’t be prouder.

 

Tzipora Shub, LCSW works as a supervisor at the JBFCS adolescent clinic in Flatbush and in private practice.