A main reason why shame remains mostly unconscious is the lack of communication about it. Here, shame demonstrates the typical characteristic of a taboo. However, language and awareness are intrinsically linked. Without language, we are often not able to develop awareness. Language actually serves us as a “mediator”, as a mirror. That is why, in George Orwells classic “1984”, the ruling class manipulated the language. Form the language, and you will form the consciousness. That´s why a conversation with my son yesterday brought me to tears.
I was sitting alone in the living room reading, the kids were already in bed. Suddenly my youngest shyly entered the room and said he would like to talk to me.
He then revealed to me that he was “feeling ashamed” (his words) when in the evening he would get up another time and come to my room. Because he would know that he “should” not do that.
In an instant, I was wide awake again. And I was both dismayed and more than happy.
Dismayed because I understood that my son had drawn some negative conclusions about himself that triggered shame. More than happy because he came to me with his distress and was even able to put words to it.
I must admit that in our household the word shame can be heard quite regularly, since I am so occupied with my studies. Before I started diving into it, however, I encountered that word rarely. So I was not surprised that my son was able to identify and name his feeling – just like he would have said that he was angry, sad or hurt.
What I found remarkable was the fact that he did not isolate and withdrew, but that he connected with me while having this bad feeling. He instinctively chose a remedy against the isolating effect of shame. I could have cried for joy.
Feeling with or without words?
This reaction, of course, says something about my own experiences. For more than forty years I have not been able to communicate my miserable state. I simply did not have the slightest clue what was going on for me. And much less I had a counterpart who would have confirmed my feelings and countered my fear. There was no other being which would have even known that we were all struggling with shame – and what we would be able to do about it.
I experienced a very conscious moment of internal battle. There was this tired mummy side that was just glad to have the evening to myself and who wanted to reject the contact offer of my son. Separation. Isolation. Rejection. Shame. And then there was this other side in me jubilating and knowing: this is a chance!
The choice was not hard, and we snug up together on our sofa. (As I have been saying: connection helps. Particularly body contact). And I told him that I was very proud of him (which was true; it was not just a strategy). I said I could understand his feelings but in my opinion he would be doing something very wise: he had detected a need and tried to fulfill it. He could be prouf of that, as this was something very healthy to do, and I was glad that he had come to me.
Boundaries and differences becoming evident
Then I explained my reasons: why I do not want all the time that he gets up again and comes into my room. That I am enjoying spending time with him, and that there are equally times where I prefer to be alone.
We were very close in that moment. I could see how he started to relax, how the anxious expression on his face vanished and made room for a big smile. Our needs are sometimes in conflict, but that does not make our needs “bad”. It is rather our job to find a solution. A balance. And this can only be done when we talk to each other.
In that moment I felt how important it is to give children the awareness and the words for shame. Within these words lies the key to transform shame into closeness and healing.