I Thought It Was Just Me: Book Review and Reflections on Shame

Brené Brown's TED talk on the power of vulnerability has been making the rounds among my friends. It really is powerful, so I checked out her book, I Thought It Was Just Me: Telling the Truth about Imperfection, Inadequacy and Power. Brown has a PhD in social work and does research around issues of shame and authenticity. The book is worth checking out if you're interested in those topics. It's not self-help in the sense of being a how-to guide to addressing shame, though there are some practical suggestions in the book; instead Brown tells lots of stories and uses them as a springboard for discussion. Her paradoxical finding is that being open and honest about our sources of shame and finding ways to share them with others is a major source of personal power. Of course we must find safe places to do this. She tells some funny, cringe-worthy stories about times she took the risk of vulnerability with the wrong people and their self-righteous reactions: "Oh my God you did WHAT?!? I can't believe you did that, I would never do such a thing." Her book was on my mind during David Wilcox's show at The Barns last night. David's concerts are always blends of songs and stories, though last night he didn't talk as much as he often does... until the end, when he went into a long, deeply personal meditation on songwriting, family secrets, and shame (though he didn't use that word). It was a vulnerable moment, but rather than diminishing him, it made his performance more powerful---that is, full of power. It was a vibrant example of what Brown writes about in her book.

The book has opened my eyes to some personal sources of shame and helped me identify some of my own physical cues and responses. Here's one I'll share, and hopefully any self-righteous "Oh My God you did WHAT?!" people will keep their horrified priggishness to themselves...

One of my central beliefs about parenting is that we should treat our children like human beings, which includes respecting their feelings, even when you can't or won't give in to what they want. This seems stupidly obvious, but once I started keeping track of my responses to them, I realized that too often I dismissed or explained away their emotions: "You've been home a week and you want another snow day? You'll be happy once you get back to school." That sort of thing. How would I like it if someone did that to me? So lately I am careful to acknowledge and empathize with their disappointment. "You've really enjoyed being home these several days, huh? It's nice not to have to go anywhere."

It's the right thing to do, I firmly believe, and it also happens to be effective with my kids. Once I showed Caroline I understood, she went to school with no complaint. Ninety-five percent of the time, once I've shown empathy, they go along with what needs to happen. Seriously.

But I've also noticed that certain topics really test my empathy. For example, television. My kids adore television and I think sometimes that they would watch it 24 hours a day if left to their own devices. On weekends we give them each one coin which they can spend on one 30 minute program or 30 minutes of Wii. (We may watch more, but that's at Daddy and Mommy's discretion.) This eliminates the endless bargaining that drives me around the bend. But when we forget to do this... look out. Recently Margaret was nagging and whining about not being able to watch a third show on a school night and I handled it poorly, nagging right back: We don't normally watch TV on school nights at all, but instead of being content at a special treat, you want more? Blah blah blah. Bad.

What I've realized is that TV is a source of shame for me as a parent. The truth is, I am very ambivalent about my kids' use of TV. The negative effects of TV on kids is documented elsewhere so I won't get into it here. But the fact is, they do watch more than I think they should. ("Should" is a big trigger for shame stuff.)  It's a lot of stuff wrapped up together: the fact that I have a job outside the home and rely on TV sometimes so I can get things done and feel guilty about that, my own heavy use of screens (I don't watch much TV but I'm on the computer a lot for work and recreation), etc. So when the kids beg, needle and cajole me for more, it pushes all my buttons and I react. Reactively.

Thankfully, the book is helping me identify this pattern. In the most recent incident, the awareness came a little late. I'd already reacted toward Margaret. I had taken all my shame and ambivalence over the TV, gathered it up into a big ball, and lobbed it over to my five year old and said, "Here, this is yours now. Deal with it."

Madness.

But I realized it immediately. And then I did this: I did the David Wilcox thing with my kids. I told them (age appropriately) about how I feel uncomfortable because sometimes I don't know the right thing to do as a parent. That TV is a fun recreational activity but too much isn't healthy, but I don't know what the limits should be for us. And that I react badly to the begging and pleading for those reasons, but maybe there's another way.

I don't know if that was the right thing to do---I see how this can get into guilt trip stuff, or put a too-heavy burden on one's kids to somehow "fix" their parents. But it felt right, and then we started talking about it, and it was a deep, courageous conversation. Margaret said, "I've noticed that when I only watch one show, I'm ready to stop. But when I watch a lot, I don't ever want to stop." Wow. (Margaret is also my emotionally intelligent child who has picked up on my use of "hungrumpy" and can tell when I'm cranky because I need to eat: "Mommy will feel better once she gets her dinner," she says patiently. It always makes me laugh and chill out.)

We're all works in progress, eh?