Shame On Us

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

Growing up with a Tiger mom leaves its emotional bite marks, especially from the constant shaming and judgment inflicted upon the child. Between my Tiger mom and nine years of Catholic school, I became quite fluent in the language of shame. From the nuanced criticisms about one’s appearance to the rigid rules governing relationships and behavior, by my late teenage years there was no escaping the critical voice in my head that guided my actions. It took a good portion of my early adulthood to understand and heal the pain that growing up with shame had wrought. However, it wasn’t until I had children that I realized I hadn’t quite broken the pattern of shaming because I hadn’t learned to adopt a different language in my own parenting.

Throughout my childhood, I was hurt, angry, and confused. I grew up made to believe I wasn’t being good enough. As a child, I internalized this shaming to mean I was bad — a bad daughter, a bad sister, a bad friend, a bad student. A mistake wasn’t just something to be corrected, it was abject failure. While I was already driven, it made me strive toward an impossible level of perfection. I would do whatever it took to prove I was good, worthy of my parents’ love and sacrifices.

Part of the shame comes from the guilt of being the beneficiary of so many sacrifices. I get it now. As a parent, there’s a notion that to love unconditionally we must sacrifice ourselves. In other words, love equals sacrifice.

How Catholics repeatedly impressed that notion upon us when I was growing up — if God sacrifices His” only son, then you better make “Him” believe it was worth it. And as guileless children, it’s easy to buy into the idea that we owe our parents and God for their love, which evidently isn’t free.

For a long time, that message made me angry. It went against the strong, opposing belief that I’d originally held at some point, which is that I was good. That’s the thing about children, they are born with the profound self-belief in their own goodness. I remember having it, until one day it was gone. The shaming delivered by my Tiger mom was only magnified by the Catholic message that we are born into original sin. That’s the ultimate shaming message if I’ve ever heard one. It made me angry to be told time and again that I wasn’t good enough or that I was bad, even though deep down it went against how I truly felt about myself.

By my teenage years, it became apparent that all of these messages were intended to control who I was, to shape me into a compliant girl who would become a model woman. A model woman who would wind up living in the shame of her very own existence.

While I could be angry at religion and at religious school for communicating that message, I was confused by it at home. When it comes from a parent, someone you love and trust, it’s an incredible betrayal, because while you are taught and understand on some level that they love you, you don’t feel loved. Is it any wonder Asian girls have a reputation for being both cloying and cold, nurturing yet verbally abusive? Look at the parents, and you realize our coping method for survival was to see shaming as love, to accept the critical voice as loving, coming from someone who only wants “the best” for you. The conflicting message of shame and love allowed me to misconstrue some of the sentiments in my own relationships, unable to discern what real love was. Until I learned to love and accept myself, I couldn’t dispel the critical voices in my head that kept telling me I wasn’t good enough. That’s not easy while trying to maintain a loving relationship with my parents, whom I’d come to forgive when I could truly understand that their intentions came from a place of love, however damaged.

It often isn’t until we have children that we recognize the patterns we carry into parenthood. Children thrive when they’re given time, attention, and love. Adolescents, in their quest for individual identity, are far more challenging. I struggled to figure out how to parent mine until I started listening to them, not just to their words but also to what they weren’t saying. (One of the few upsides to being a child of a Tiger mom is how sensitive we are to body language and understanding passive/aggressive silent treatments.) Not only did I hear their precocious wisdom, but I became attuned to the fact that there were things they were afraid to say. They were afraid to disappoint and fail. Somehow I’d forgotten that, as their parent, they looked up to me. And as I confronted parenting challenges, my fallback would be — and I hate to even say it — to shame. Of course I didn’t realize it at the time.

It’s the insidious thing about shame, it’s so embedded in our vocabulary and in our interactions that we often don’t realize we’re doing it until the damage is done.

Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Shaming isn’t limited to any one culture either. Living in the UK, I see it in the passive/aggressive interactions between British people, the way no one actually says what they mean or the way they don’t really say anything at all (in a way similar to Brazilians, which is something I also learned from my time living in Brazil). Today, shaming is also evident in social media interactions, media headlines, op-eds, talking heads on TV tearing everything and everyone down. It’s nearly impossible to disagree with someone anymore or to opine on a matter without someone or some group jumping all over us for our views. This is equally true on both sides.

Valuing differences and having critical discussions is necessary for growth, yet we can’t seem to do that without others passing judgment or offering “constructive” criticism, which is really someone pontificating on their own viewpoint. But it’s more than pontificating, it’s shaming and attacking. Why do we feel it acceptable to expect others to agree with us or adopt our own views?

Judgment, discord, and shame are what have kept us in line as a society and brought order and control under patriarchy. When we challenge long-held ideas or merely popular ones that are easy to cling to by hoards of non-thinkers, their natural inclination is to become aggressive, to push back; and if intimidation doesn’t work, then they resort to shaming.

I feel for those clinging to what is familiar. We need to have compassion for ourselves while we stare shame in the face as well compassion for those clinging to their fears. In the end, those who shame feel a great deal of it themselves. They’ve internalized the message that I had internalized, which is that to be a model person, worthy of time, love, or attention, then they must be “good” (however they define it to be in order to survive or exist within their community).

If we are to come into our own power and empower future generations, we cannot be shackled by the effects of shame, by the many ways in which we’ve internalized the message that we are “bad” or “wrong” or “failures”. We cannot allow the notion of shame to destroy our capacity to love ourselves, especially if we hope to have loving relationships and partnerships. Shame accomplishes nothing but spreading a great deal of damage in its wake.

Creating true, positive change will not come if we shame people into it. The reason there is so much hostility around the most controversial and sensitive issues of our day is because we haven’t found a new way to communicate about them. In the end, so long as we keep shaming people, we’ll damage yet another generation that believes verbal bullying is appropriate.

Shaming does not edify; it destroys self-esteem and self-belief and is the greatest obstacle to self-love. It’s not until we can learn to adopt a way of relating and communicating, one based on compassion, using what I call the Language of Love, that we’ll really understand cooperation and equality. That is, to communicate from our hearts, from a place of love, rather than from a place of fear.

Vivian Winslow is the pen name for Elizabeth A. Hayes. She is the author of The Gilded Flower Trilogies and the Wildflowers Series, contemporary, inclusive romance fiction with a strong female narrative. In addition to writing, Elizabeth is a spirtual teacher and healer.

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