I have three kids, and whenever possible, we do playdates. Mainly because it makes my life easier, but at the same time, it’s good for them to socialize. Inevitably during a playdate, a fight of some sort will break out. It normally goes something like this:
“Mom! Susie hit me!” my child says, tearful and indignant. Hitting is wrong!
“Well, I only hit you because you stole my toy from me!” Susie will reply, also tearful and indignant. Stealing is wrong!
“I had to steal it because Susie wouldn’t share!” Still tearful and getting more indignant because it was insinuated that they were in the wrong. Not sharing is more wrong!
“I didn’t want to share right now! It’s my toy!”
At this point, the parents have to soothe each child and confirm: Yes, they are correct it is not right to hit, steal, not share, and demand something that someone does not want to share. From there, you have to misdirect; I find snacks to be the most successful. Luckily, that’s where it stops with kids. They don’t tend to hold grudges, and they can move on like nothing ever happened.
As adults, we still fall into the same trap, minus the no-grudges thing. I think our shame tells us if that someone does not think we are 100 percent right, then we must be 100 percent wrong. From there, your shame can work all sorts of angles: They don’t like you because you don’t agree. They think you’re stupid because you don’t agree. You are stupid because they don’t agree with you. They are stupid … you see where I’m going. The truth is, sometimes you’re a little bit right and a little bit wrong. It doesn’t take away from you or them if you are both.
You see it more and more on social media. It is heightened by news geared more toward driving ratings than information. If someone can’t agree with everything I’m saying, then that must mean they disagree with everything I’m saying. It goes both ways, covers all parties and genders, and is not true for each and every case.
I find my shame likes to work like a spotlight sometimes. I can be having a conversation with someone, and it will randomly brush against a topic that may be a trigger for me, and fwoom! Spotlight on. Suddenly this entire conversation changes, and it feels like this person is judging me, and in judging, is disapproving of me. My responses become clipped and I am anxious to end the conversation as quickly as possible, and once I leave, I have to immediately call someone and be like, “Can you believe what so-and-so said to me?!”
In reality, that other person probably had no idea that that was a trigger for me, and is wondering why I was so rude. Or, even more likely, they carried on with their day without another thought about our conversation, while I agonized over it for weeks. With my shame pressing and needling at me, I feel driven to get as many people as possible on my side. I need affirmation that I am right, even if there is no real “right” in the situation.
Sometimes there are no heroes. We each are living our lives to the best of our abilities. There is not always a villain or antagonist who wants to ruin your life. It may just be someone was just having a conversation and had no idea you felt so much about the subject. Even if it was intentional, it most likely is someone who was projecting their own hurt onto you, and in the process they hurt not only you, but themselves as well. When our shame spotlight is on, a lot of people end up in the crosshairs, including ourselves.
But how do we stop our knee-jerk reactions when the spotlight is on? It is something I have been thinking on. The first and most important step for me is to recognize when it’s on and when it’s off. If I can recognize my shame triggers, it gives me time and a moment of reason. I can recognize that I am probably not going to have a good response because I am feeling in the spotlight. Knowing that has become really important to me.
Secondly, I try and walk away. I take a breath, change the subject or leave the conversation. It gives me time to calm my knee-jerks down and have a logical response instead of an emotional one. That is way more healthy for both me and whomever I’m talking to.
While I am processing it, I try to decide if it is an accidental trigger, where the person had no idea that what they were saying was hurtful to me, or if it was intentional (because sometimes it is). If it is intentional, I have to decide: Is it worth it to talk to that person, or should I just let it go?
If I can’t talk about it with the person (which I can’t always do, because I am just not emotionally prepped for that currently), then I talk to someone else. Don’t let your shame isolate you. There is a reason there is the saying “safety in numbers,” and it applies in all facets of our lives. Find your people and talk to them, but try not to focus just on the person who shamed you. This is something I can be very guilty of, but it’s not super effective. It is much healthier to focus on why this triggered your shame. What shame message did it trigger, and what is your healthy rebuttal?
I should clarify that the healthy rebuttal should be toward your shame message and not the person. Being able to limit the power your shame has on you for the next time is much better than coming up with the perfect comeback (“But Susie wouldn’t share!”). If you can’t come up with a healthy anti-shame mantra, have your people make one for you. Sometimes we have to repeat something until we believe it. Having people who love you help you find the words is a great way to find the right words.
Finally, and you can all sing it with me: Let it go!
It’s OK if your shame spotlight goes on. I am hoping with time, mine may get a little dimmer, but until then, I’m trying to not shame myself for having shame. One thing that is hard for me is knowing what my healthy response is and seeing when I don’t use it. I guess it’s progress, because I can at least recognize this is not the best way to respond. Wait, let me take the shame out of that sentence: It IS progress because I recognize that is not the best way to respond, and before, I would not have. If I can let go of my shame, it makes me much more forgiving in a conversation, less angry and more willing to listen.
To take it back to the playdate, when my shame spotlight is on, Susie may say, “I don’t want to share my toy right now.” But what I hear is: “I don’t trust you to play with my toy; you might break it; you break everything.” Or: “I don’t like it enough to share my toy with you.” Which then escalates my response. But if I can dim or even turn off my shame spotlight, when Susie says, “I don’t want to share my toy right now,” that is all I hear, and my response is simply, “OK.”
Here’s to recognizing our spotlights and finding our dimmer switch — and, most importantly, being OK with both.