My family recently had dinner at a casual place where you order and grab a seat. While waiting in line, our son started playing with the kid in front. They bonded immediately in a superhero battle and while finding a table, he insisted we sit adjacent to his new best friend.
Caught up in the excitement, my son hit his head on the concrete wall. The look on his face was an excruciating mix of pain and humiliation. I was startled by it. He had clearly hurt himself but was ashamed to cry. This was new territory.
I immediately scooped him up and walked away from the table, whispering “It’s okay to cry. You hit your head, sweetheart, and it hurt.” As soon as we were out of view, he dropped to his knees, hid his head and started crying. All the while saying, “I don’t want anyone to see me!”
This shocked me. Exposing shame is a major part of my work as a therapist. And as a parent, I’m sensitive to the coercive use of it in correcting misbehavior. Additionally, my son attends a daycare that does a terrific job of monitoring bullying, fairness and equal rights. How was this happening?
Picking him up again, I made a bee line to the bathroom so he could let it out in peace. Second only to his scream at birth, would I feel as grateful to hear him cry out.
I sit with clients on a regular basis as they find the courage to heal old wounds around shame and my heart always goes out to them. But to see my boy crumble in shame broke my heart. He’s only four years-old.
That night, I made up a story about a kingdom whose currency was kindness. A little boy falls off his bike and “Ironman” comforts him by letting him know it’s okay to cry. It’s a story about empathy, courage, compassion and connection – the four qualities that build resilience against shame.
I think he got. I hope so. At least he knows there is no shame in talking about it.