Several years ago, at a meeting with a group of Western teachers, the Dalai Lama expressed astonishment at the degree of self-aversion and feelings of unworthiness reported by Western students. In fact, when asked about self-hatred (by Sharon Salzberg, a senior teacher in the Insight tradition), he did not know what it was, and needed it explaining.
There is a vast, often hidden area of Western human experience and that is the experience of shame. I have, in the last couple of months, become very interested in this, both with regard to myself, and professionally in relation to the school; as a parent and as a teacher. I want to begin sharing some of my reflections on it and have no doubt that this is the beginning of a much longer conversation.
Shame manages behaviour by persuading children to feel bad about themselves for needing, feeling or wanting something. It comments on what the child is, rather than what the child has done and the result is often a shrinking away from potential, from themselves. And yet, we all have needs, so the basic message of shame is, “Your natural way of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are”.
There is also a deep human need to belong, to relate to others. To feel isolated produces what the Buddha described as ‘self-centred suffering’, in which we become the ‘owner’ of whatever occurs.
The fear of failure and rejection from the group, family or community is a powerful and unseen driver and results in isolation at various levels. This in turn feeds addictive behaviour, in an effort to join in and belong, or to cope with the isolation and confirm the feelings of worthlessness.
Already, I am presenting a delicate balance – allowing children to ‘be’ and yet finding ways for them to become fully part of the society that we live in. This is for me a central parental and educational concern; how am I to manage these two, potentially incompatible strands?
There are ways we can behave as parents and teachers which enable us to navigate these choppy waters, but we need to do it authentically as children are smart and shame is often felt as a powerful undercurrent.
Not only do we need to (attempt to) be the person we want them to be, but we can also treat our children as though they are already the person WE want them to be. They are already brave enough, good enough, smart and kind enough etc.
By contrast, many of us have grown up with messages about where we fell short and how we should be different from the way we are. We can experiment with different perspectives and behaviours around this.
We all make mistakes. For me, there is much work to be done on forgiving myself, as well as my daughter. I need to keep remembering how young she is, and that this is why she speaks and behaves in particular ways, or irritates me sometimes. If she is out of line, it is my role to lay down a boundary in a non-shaming way; focusing on the behaviour, rather than on who she is. I don’t need to compare her with siblings or peers or even with her at a previous time if it is shaming. When engaging with children it is so important to be as forgiving as possible and to let their spirit shine through.
I present this as an ongoing enquiry. Do come and tell me if you want to share your experiences in this realm!