I commonly use a “shame board” when doing a seminar or workshop. I ask participants to say words or phrases that come to mind when asked “what did you hear, growing up, about what it means to be a boy or a girl?” And then I have them relate that to being an adult (in other words, how did those messages prepare them, or not prepare them, to be a man or a woman today). I have a “boy” list and a “girl” list. The words and phrases often come so quickly I can hardly write fast enough to post them. For boys, the list usually includes things like: strong, tough, competition, athletic, provide for a family, protect a family and many more. The girl list includes things like: be attractive, be likeable, peacemaker, submissive, sweet, feminine, don’t argue, nurture and many more. Both are fraught with tripwires to shame.
If those words indicate what “good” looks like, then when we fall short of that ideal, we automatically trip the wire of shame. We do not measure up. We are not good enough. We can’t please others. Consciously, or unconsciously, adults in our life may have reinforced those lists, never tiring of pointing out our limitations and failures. We began to internalize those shortcomings and started believing the illusion that we were not good enough. If we were unfortunate enough to belong to a religious sect that hammered away at the shortcomings of human existence rather than its original blessing, we could still struggle as an adult with an ontological sense of dis-ease, an abiding sense that we, along with the rest of the world, are so wretched that all we can do is hope to some day leave here for a much better place.
I have worked with many men through the years who have expressed through words and actions a profound sense of depression. They see themselves as “bad” or “not much of a man” because they can no longer support their family. Often, through no fault of their own. Jobs went away. They often lack skills for anything new, nor are they able to move to where there might be a new job. It’s no wonder so many of them are angry. Likewise, women who have had to raise kids on their own have expressed an anger, bordering on rage, for having to be both mom and dad. Both men and women expressing shame for not being, as an adult, what they had been taught to be as kids (that is, they don’t measure up to the lists we just talked about).
We probably cannot erase the shame boards lurking in our past. But we CAN practice Little League affirmation. Remember, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. We can use positive words when talking to spouses, family members and co-workers. We can look for positive, uplifting, ways to say thank you to servers, maintenance personnel, delivery people and so on. Even if we can’t think of just the right thing to say, we can always say “atta boy,” “atta girl,” “you got this!” Don’t let people shirk their responsibilities by saying “oh, that’s okay, we didn’t need that report after all….” We can, for example, remind them that the report is due, ask if they need help, and look forward to reading it by (time and date)…..you get the idea.
I suggest going to a ballgame and reminding ourselves of what Little League affirmation looks like, what it sounds like, how it feels. Winning teams still practice it every game, even this late in the season, even at the Major League level. We don’t have to keep reading that old shame board. We can write a new one. Because, after all, we got this!