A young friend of mine was recently talking to me about how hard she works not to shame her almost 5-year-old son. She has read about and heard from me how profoundly harmful deeply embedded shame messages can be for any of us.
Healthy vs. unhealthy shame
My young friend shared that she was very angry because her son had head-butted her, banging her nose. It still hurt many hours later.
But rather than saying anything that might shame him, she bottled her frustration, relieved to be able to drop him off at school and head to work. She was, however, still stinging both physically and emotionally from his action. She talked about imposing consequences, taking away some of his special toys to try to help him think more about reigning in some of his impulsivity.
I asked her if she had thought about telling him how much her nose still hurt and to suggest he find ways to make amends, do something to help her feel better. She looked very surprised that I would suggest such a thing. “I don’t want to do anything to shame him,” she said.
I suggested to her to think about the concept of healthy shame.
One of the best books I have come across on the subject is by John Bradshaw: Healing the Shame that Binds You. He begins his book by sharing that shame is a healthy human emotion that lets us know we are limited.
“Healthy shame is an emotion which signals us about our limits. Like all emotion it moves us to get our basic needs met…. Healthy shame is the basic metaphysical boundary for human beings. It is the emotional energy which signals us that we are not God – that we have made and will make mistakes, that we need help.
Healthy shame gives us permission to be human.… It allows us to know our limits, and thus to use our energy more effectively. We have better direction when we know our limits.… Healthy shame allows us energy to be integrated rather than diffused.” [p. 4]
Parents have the very difficult job of allowing children to experience healthy shame, which helps them be in touch with core dependency needs. This can be done without causing them to experience toxic shame, which causes them to believe they are intrinsically unworthy of love and connection.
When children make mistakes in expressing their need for independence, it needs to be made clear they take responsibility if they cross boundaries and somehow hurt someone else. They also need to be empowered to then make amends (“Maybe you can bring Mommy a cold washcloth to hold on my nose so it will feel better”).
Growing a moral compass
All of us, as human beings, struggle with primitive desires for power and pleasure that can prevent us from staying in line with the moral compass of fairness, compassion and responsibility. We need to learn—and ultimately appreciate—the limits that come when healthy shame informs us we are not maintaining appropriate boundaries.
Without crushing them or causing them to believe they are unworthy and therefore deserving of toxic shame, parents face the huge challenge of helping children from an early age begin to discover the concept of healthy shame.
At the same time, it is a real gift to children to have those moments when someone helps them appreciate they have gone too far and need to be held accountable. Being able to make amends is a huge part of promoting healthy responses to healthy feelings of shame.
In addition to John Bradshaw, author and researcher Brené Brown has brilliantly brought the issue of healthy vs. toxic shame to our attention through her many books, interviews on talk shows such as Oprah and through her many YouTube videos.
Invitation to reflect:
- How clear are you about the differences between healthy shame and toxic shame?
- How do the differences inform your parenting responses when your children do something that crosses the boundaries of caring, civilized, responsible behavior? [Note that very young children should not be held accountable for behaviors that are beyond their control. The tricky part is figuring out when they are capable of understanding the impact of their behaviors. Then we can help them learn how to become more responsible if they cross boundaries that could have hurt someone else to learn they are capable of making amends. This then can allow them to experience healthy shame and recover from it.]
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network