Let me tell you two stories from my childhood.
Story Number One
When I was very young, maybe five years old, the community pool my family belonged to decided to put on an event called the “Water Ballet“.
In Water Ballet, the older girls of the community (including my sister) instructed the younger girls (including me) in a choreographed dance/synchronized swimming routine.
The culmination of Water Ballet was a recital, of sorts, that we put on for our parents and, of course, any other community members who wished to see our performance. So, just our parents. I imagine the woman who conceived Water Ballet pictured us cavorting Esther Williams-style around the community pool to the delight of a huge and appreciative audience.
The theme for our Water Ballet was “Hawaii“.
The costumes for our performance, manufactured by our mothers, were “grass” skirts made out of burlap cut into strips and tied around our waists. We wore our grass skirts over black bathing suits.
On the evening of the big performance, we got dressed in the locker room of the pool. I looked at all the other little girls. Their grass skirts consisted of burlap cut into many very thin strips, which barely covered the bottom of their bathing suits. My grass skirt hung to my knees, and the burlap strips were ominously wide.
Did we miss the memo? I worried that maybe we should have had a dress rehearsal.
Not only did I look different from all the other girls, when we jumped into the pool, my grass skirt became a heavy, sodden mess. Since I was only five and without hips to hold up this suddenly weighty apparel, my grass skirt tended to slip down around my ankles.
I spent the rest of the dance holding my soggy grass skirt in place.
As we finally, mercifully, made our exit, I heard sniggers from the audience as I passed.
Story Number Two
There were a lot of kids to play with in the neighborhood where I grew up. My best friend, one year younger than me, lived three houses down.
We were inseparable. We played together all day, ate dinner at each other’s houses, and had sleepovers at least once a week. We even called ourselves “The Sisters“.
Like most sisters, we also did our share of bickering. Nothing serious – we both had sunny dispositions – but frequent.
Once, our bickering (over a tetherball game) escalated into a full-blown fight, complete with slaps and hair-pulling. In the melee, I kicked my friend and hurt her. Tears came to her eyes. Incredibly, rather than apologizing, I made fun of her for crying like a baby.
I felt bad after both of these incidents – the Water Ballet fiasco and the fight – but bad in different ways.
My purpose for telling you these stories is not to inflict torturous recollections of my childhood upon you, but to illustrate a point.
I have been reading Brene Brown recently. In her books, Brown spells out the difference between guilt and shame: “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, ‘I am bad.‘ Guilt is, ‘I did something bad.‘“
In the first story, I felt shame. Not only was my costume a disaster, but in my mind, it was yet another example of how I just did not fit in.
All of the other little girls somehow knew how to dress, what to say, how to act in lock-step with each other. I was always the oddball on the outside looking in and I was ashamed.
In the second story, I felt guilt. I had really hurt my friend, whom I loved and who was younger and smaller than me. I eventually did apologize, was forgiven, and never again fought with her. Oh, we still frequently argued, but it never again escalated into a brawl.
Guilt is not always a bad thing. It ultimately helps us live in society by pushing us to change unacceptable behavior. It might not be a comfortable feeling, but it can be instructive.
Shame, on the other hand, makes us want to change who we are. It makes us feel unlovable, unsuitable, unworthy. It shines a very bright spotlight on our perceived shortcomings and failures. It is always destructive.
Guilt is easier to come back from than shame. It is possible to change a behavior. Overcoming feelings of guilt can teach us self-forgiveness. We can learn to give ourselves grace. We discover how to consider the feelings of others.
I should have, could have, and did change my behavior regarding the fight.
Shame prevents us from accepting forgiveness. When we feel shame, we believe we are undeserving of grace.
One more thing.
Shame tends to isolate us. White-hot shame makes us feel as though we do not merit love and acceptance. The way to overcome shame is through empathy and forgiveness. Empathy releases us from our self-isolation. It allows us to give ourselves validation.
Eventually, as I got older, I realized that being an oddball was not a bad thing. In fact, by the time I reached my teenage years, it was one of the things I was most proud of. I didn’t have to be in lock-step with the crowd to be accepted. My friends loved me for the goofy, nerdy person I was.
I got over the shame of the grass skirt.
But I still remember it.
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