I was struck this week by a powerful article in Guideposts magazine written by Elizabeth Vargas entitled “Hiding in Plain Sight.” It is a story of her struggle with alcoholism and the impact that it had and continues to have on her life.
Shame, core beliefs and defining moments
In this article, Vargas describes herself as being “born anxious.” I suspect she was born temperamentally more emotionally sensitive and perhaps more vulnerable to feeling insecure. Some children are just more emotionally vulnerable than others, which means they can be more deeply impacted by things said and done to them that might not as deeply impact another child with a different temperament.
She speaks of a life-changing moment when at the age of six she felt overwhelmed by panic as she watched her mother leave the house to go to the hospital to have a baby. She says the neighbor who was there to look after the children scolded her for being upset. “What’s the matter with you? Go back to bed. Stop making a scene.” She shares how this message sank in and was an imprint for her. “My anxiety, my panic, was something shameful… Something to be hidden at all costs. And the cost would prove huge.”
It can seem hard to believe that one brief moment like this can be life changing. But apparently, it is moments like these that can leave imprints in our minds and belief systems that can influence us throughout our lives.
Life-changing moments caused by sticky words
Francine Shapiro’s book, Getting Past your Past, highlights story after story of people who had life-changing moments in what we otherwise might consider normal childhoods. These moments happened when someone mocked them, shamed them, humiliated them or otherwise diminished their sense of self.
Somehow the moment becomes the perfect storm. It’s a moment in time when something someone says is so powerful, so “sticky” that it becomes deeply embedded and defines something about who we are, our worth, and the degree to which we feel deep shame about who we are.
Here are two important takeaways for parents.
First, be aware of the power of your words, especially if messages are shaming, blaming and ones that isolate your child from you. Your child may be making a decision about his or her worth and his or her safety and connection with you.
Second, be open and available to allow your child to process fearful moments with you, moments when your child may be overwhelmed by feelings of shame. These life-changing moments sometimes are the result of something someone else says to a child. Look for signs that your child may be feeling insecure or scared like clinginess, heightened anxiety, frequent downcast facial expressions and body language of shame.
Think through the things that you have said that possibly could be influencing the way your child feels towards himself or herself and towards the safety of your relationship. Make it a habit to check in regularly, perhaps daily, to see if there have been any times during the day when your child has overheard or directly been told something shaming.
“When you think about your day, was there ever a time when you heard something or someone said something to you that made you feel scared or sad or not good about yourself? Sometimes someone says or does something scary that a child is afraid to talk about. It’s okay if you tell me about it. I’ll listen and together we can talk about it.”
Honor and respect
If your child does share something upsetting, make sure you honor and respect it is real and significant. Avoid diminishing the power of the message, and instead, recognize the pain it caused. “That was so hard for you to hear! It really hurt your feelings and made you wonder about yourself, about who you are and how important you are.”
After listening and acknowledging, offer a sincere, specific affirmation to help counter the message. “I think it was very brave of you to share that with me. And it is important to know that it is not true. Sometimes people say mean things without realizing they are hurting someone. That should not have happened to you.”
Imagine how differently Elizabeth Vargas’ life might have been if she had been treated in these ways. Maybe it would have made some difference and maybe it would have made all the difference in the world. We’ll never know, but the clarity of the memory that day tells us how powerful the message was.
I think her story is a gift to all parents to be mindful of the power of messages that shame. They can be life-changing moments.
Invitation to Reflect
- When you think about your own life, can you isolate moments when something was said to you or you overheard something being said about you, even an offhand comment that changed your perception of yourself? If so, how has that affected you throughout your life?
- If what was said in one of those life-changing moments damaged your self-esteem, how much differently would the impact have been if a trusted family member, like your mother or father, invited you to talk about it and was able to love and reassure you?
- How aware are you of the power of some of your words to your children that might be now imprinted as shaming beliefs? It’s never too late to go back and invite your children to share with you what they believe is true about themselves and to clarify beliefs that produce anxiety and shame in them.
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network