Dear Fiona: No Shame

Dear Fiona,

In my last letter I talked about treasuring the now and empathizing with your past selves in order to avoid letting regret and overwhelm you and take away from who you are.

That notion of regret and its impact on how we look at our past selves is a small piece of one of the most powerful motivating forces known to humanity. It’s a force I hope you never have to face . . . and yet, one which I know you will at some point: It’s shame.

Some parents intentionally use shame to motivate their children. Some view it as an ideal way to get children to comply or conform.

For reasons I’ll explain in a bit, I don’t want to be that kind of parent.

But there are other parents – and I find myself in this category far more often than I’d like – who fall back on shame as a parenting tactic unintentionally, simply because it’s a natural part of our vocabulary. Shame and shaming are all around us – in everything from the roads we drive on to the books we read to the stores where we buy food and clothes . . . and it’s really, really hard to break away from them, either when you’re dealing with yourself, or when you’re trying to interact with others.

Self-empathy, as I wrote about in my last letter, is a starting point. Self-empathy gives us a way to get past our own shame about past decisions, learn what we can from them, and make better ones in the future.

Then, empathy for others comes into play. Once I’ve empathized with myself and my past shames in a specific area, it helps me consciously choose something different in the way I interact with you . . . both because I have learned how to forgive myself, and because I don’t want to put the same pressures on you that I have taken on myself.

As I mentioned before, I’m kind of bad at this. I’m not very good at self-empathy, and I am very good at letting my emotions cloud my ability to empathize with someone else “in the moment.”

But after all, who cares? What’s wrong with shame as a motivator, as long as it’s motivating us to do the right thing?

Simply this: If you’re acting out of shame, you’re acting because you think you should . . . because something outside yourself is pressuring you to act.

And in the long run, those sorts of external motivators are always, always, always going to be less compelling, less meaningful, than acting from internal motivation. Oh, they’ll get the job done . . . sometimes more quickly and effectively than internal motivation will. But you will invariably do something better, more often, for longer, if you’re doing it because you want to.

And shaming has a perverse habit of making you want to do something less and less and less as time goes on. If you feel you should do something (because of some external factor, like “daddy wants me to”) then you will be psychologically inclined not to want to do it for yourself. As a result, as soon as that external pressure is off, more than likely, you’ll stop.

That’s just how the human brain works . . . so shaming is in fact counterproductive as a parenting tactic.

Beyond that, though, it’s counter to who I want to be, and who I want you to be. I don’t want you to make choices and operate your life based on what you think I want. I want you to make wise choices and operate your life because you want to.

Given that desire for you, the only reason I could possibly have for resorting to shame is because it feels cathartic in the moment to get agitated because what I want to be done isn’t getting done . . . to take out my frustrations on someone.

And that is just plain disrespectful. It’s treating you like you’re less a person – one with her own set of wishes and desires and preferences – than you are a thing . . . something to be pre-programmed to do exactly as I want you to do, when I want you to do it. A thing that I am entitled to expect to behave a certain way, and against whom I am entitled to be upset when it does not perform as expected. A possession.

That’s just not at all who you are, and the last thing I want to do as your parent is in any way reinforce the notion that it’s who you ought to be.

Because if I teach you to be unthinkingly and uncritically compliant as a child, how can I expect you to grow up to be anything else as an adult? I don’t need a robot. I need my little girl! And while sometimes it feels like what I need is for my little girl to go to sleep already, in truth what I need is to . . . well . . . empathize with her. When what I want to do is lash out at you or Tristan and shame you by saying something like, “Do you realize how hard you’re making this for me?” or “Can’t you just do what I want already?” What I need to do is better understand how hard it is for you, and precisely why you’re reacting to your world the way you are in that moment.

Because there’s always a reason, even if I can’t see or comprehend it in the moment. And like I said in one of my earlier letters, I don’t consider it my job as your parent to raise a dutiful, compliant little girl (something for which shame could certainly be useful). I consider it my job to raise a wise, free, and strong adult woman.

And when it comes to that, shame just gets in the way.

So I’m sorry for the times when I will inadvertently revert to shame to motivate you and your brother. I hope those times are very few and very far between.


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