Shame: The Silencer

One of my favorite authors has a great and memorable metaphor for thinking about shame:

“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists – it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”
– Daring Greatly, Brene Brown

What are your gremlins saying?

Shame is one of my favorite things to talk about with clients. It’s my favorite because shame hides and when it comes out in therapy, I know we are really getting somewhere. I tell my clients, “Shame is a liar,” because shame tells us, “this is really bad, you better not tell anyone about this, no one will understand.” In this way, shame perpetuates dysfunction by hiding problems that need to come out and be addressed. Shame paralyzes us and prevents us from inviting alternate perspectives on important issues in our lives. This is why it’s so important to be able to recognize and address shame in students. Shame will keep a student from being open and honest with adult mentors, and keep secrets to avoid “being exposed.”

Shame keeps us slaves of our problems as they grow and cause us outsized levels of anxiety.

Why teens are especially vulnerable to shame

We can develop resilience to shame by learning to be appropriately vulnerable. This task is challenging and uncomfortable even for adults and is something students are likely actively avoiding due to their stage of life. Growing from a child into a teenager is an often painful process of gaining awareness of oneself. Childish habits and behaviors are targeted for extinction or exile, and many behaviors can invite ridicule from peers. This process is painful enough that even among adults thoughts of middle school elicit shudders! Being vulnerable is risky, so students often wear masks to protect themselves.  

So, what can you do for your teens?

Shame is tough to target in the midst of these processes. When all systems are actively working to conceal weakness or failure, the antidote to shame must be powerful in order to work. The thing is – vulnerability is really important. We have to be able to be vulnerable to form meaningful relationships with others.  Here are some things adults can do to help teens open up to vulnerability and overcome shame.

  1. Acknowledge our own discomfort with vulnerability. Everyone struggles to allow themselves to be vulnerable. Often, it’s the last thing we want others to see in us, but as shame researcher Brene Brown points out, it’s the first thing people look for in us. Authenticity is important in building trust with others.
  2. Practice vulnerability and model it for teens. It’s hard for us to help teens with their shame and vulnerability without being confronted by our own. Hearing middle school struggles can bring back powerful and cringeworthy memories for us! We have to confront that in ourselves to be of real help to teens experiencing shame. Sharing frankly about our own struggles from those years can be very helpful!
  3. Love unconditionally. Love those kids even especially when they are annoying and childish. Model for them the appropriate presence of a caring adult. It’s important that students have adults who care about them no matter what flaws they may have. Students are much more likely to be vulnerable if they know they have a safe environment to do so.
  4. Praise teens for authenticity and caring. Authenticity and caring are indicators that teens are interacting genuinely with those around them. Caring can be risky, and is one way students can practice vulnerability.
  5. Encourage teens to practice gratitude. Research shows that practicing gratitude works powerfully against shame. If you’re assisting a student through feelings of shame, encourage them to spend time thinking of all the things they are thankful for.
  6. Teach kids to consider the source of criticism. Help them identify the people in their lives from whom feedback is healthy and should be listened to, and those whose feedback can be dismissed. Those who love them for their flaws and struggles can be listened to safely. The haters can (thankfully) be ignored.

You are a powerful force for your teens.

The task of being with someone as they navigate difficult feelings is a simple, but powerful act. So often, teens may not understand that these feelings are universal. Having a youth worker to talk to is more than a lot of students have, and it helps so much to have an adult that can help them sort through their feelings.  My teenage clients often progress much faster and need fewer sessions when they have trusted adults in their lives.

It may seem like a big task, but whether you know it or not, you already have all the tools you need: presence, willingness, and your own experiences with shame.

Megan Dinnel

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