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Unmasking Shame

September 17, 2022

At the time, I was barely conscious of it but looking back it was certainly there. A shadowy presence that would suddenly appear looming over me and casting uncertainty over my very existence and already shaky sense of self. “You don’t matter”, I could hear it whisper.

One of my earliest recollections of this voice and shady presence comes from my first year at school when I was 4. I do not remember hitting, but next thing I knew the thick woollen sleeves of my navy school V-neck were being yanked over my wrists and tied with elastic bands. Instead of hands, I now had elephant trunks, a reminder and warning to all that I was not fit for human consumption. I was wild and out of control. In this state of temporary mutation, I swallowed down the all-consuming feeling of shame, the toxic notion that I was somehow ‘bad’.

This shame has shown up in different guises over my school years and looking back, I can recognise my subconscious strategy was to out-do and out-perform it: work hard, be the best! A ruse that came with its own problems but that’s a story for another day. Suffice to say that shame and perfectionism are close cousins, the latter an ineffective and shackling antidote to this all-engulfing feeling that you are ‘not worthy to be here’.

While shame, however, is hard to even mention or talk about, perfectionism is openly accepted and rewarded - at school, at work, on social media. It has its uses and can be manipulated to wield and assert control as another of my primary-school figures well knew.

Once again, my childish ‘wildness’ took over when I thought it would be funny to hide a friend’s lunchbox in the toilet. I was caught and ‘called out’ by the teacher in front of all my classmates. She was kind and I could sense she was feigning disappointment but the mere whiff of disapproval in her reprimand - “she was surprised an angel like me to do such a thing” - stuck with me. I doubled down on my efforts to ‘be good’ and acceptable.

It was only well into parenthood that I discovered the true cost and burden of my perfectionism, this ‘myth’ of acceptability attained through tight-control. I was able to unmask it for what it truly was: a deep and utter sense of shame, of not being 'good enough’. Having experienced it, I believe that parental shame is probably one of the worst. It is the rock-bottom and destructive tsumani that, in a split-second, takes out all the good you ever did and wanted. It is the ’loss of control’: the smack, the scream, the pinch, the pull and then the ensuing cold bucket of water in the face as you realise your behaviour is totally out of line with your values and everything you ever hoped to be as a parent.

While it was relieving to be aware of this shame-driven perfectionism, like someone had finally switched the light on, it was also devastating. I was forced to survey the mess and damage I’d already caused to myself and my most loved ones. In my fight to keep up with ‘Perfect’, I had unrealistic expectations of the little creative and wonderfully messy human beings that had come into my midst. Without even realising what I was doing, I was passing the mantle of shame onto them.

Shame is duplicitous. It tricks you into believing you are the only one, and that no-one must ever find out who you really are lest you are rejected forever. But I can see it for what it is now, I can detect when other well-meaning adults try to use it against my children and I can help my kids identify that. The latest was the Doctor who, more or less, explained to my eldest daughter, hospitalised due to severe constipation, that she needed to do all the right things because her condition and the treatment it required was ‘embarrassing’. When I later asked my daughter whether she felt embarrassed, she gave me an assured ‘no’ to which I was able to say ‘good, you shouldn’t be’.

The thing with shame is that in not recognising it and talking about it, we end up piling on more shame over ourselves and others, unleashing a cataclysmic and toxic cycle of fear, judgement, (self) blame, rejection, and potentially a drive towards perfectionism.

In that moment in the hospital ward and in the process of helping my 12-year old with her increasing constipation and the anxiety that likely provoked it, I had to hold my own sense of shame and double-down on self-compassion. As a parent, in the business of helping other parents with their children's emotional health, I could feel that shady whip-wielder at my heels. It wanted nothing else but to discredit me, call me an imposter and have me cowing in a corner.

The truth I know, is that none of us is perfect. We are all figuring this stuff out. We are not alone. Shame is something we all experience and the only way forward is to call it out for what it is.

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