Thursday, February 2, 2012

Embarrassment, Shame

I've been thinking a lot about embarrassment and shame. Josh has never exhibited having a sense of shame. He does not hide things. He has never lied to me. As far as I have seen, his brain is not wired to be socially connected or aware enough to experience shame. He is nine years old and he does not care if anyone sees him naked. He just walks through life being pretty much who he is and he does not put any of his energy into managing other people's opinions of him. Josh doesn't care about that sort of thing at all. It's kind of beautifully free.

My observation is that the rest of us spend lots of time and energy managing our own images. If we are honest, every conversation, every expression, (even every blogpost!) has some element of shaping how we want others to see us. And at the very bottom of that is a sense of insecurity, fear that we are not quite OK just how we are. We are concerned about how others see us and when we find ourselves in situations where others might (or do) see us in a negative light, we are embarrassed and ashamed.

This develops amazingly early in typically developing people. For example, the other day, I had given Anna, my five year old, some smoothie for breakfast. We were running late so I put it in a sippy cup to drink in the car. Generally, we don't use sippy cups anymore because everyone can handle normal cups but I did manage to dig one out. Anna hadn't finished the smoothie in the car so I told her that she could bring it into school with her, put it in her cubby, and finish it during first recess. Anna thought about it for a moment and then covered the sippy cup with a jacket and carried her backpack awkwardly over them both.

I said to her, "What are you doing? Here, let me carry that for you."

Anna whispered in a greatly annoyed, anxious voice, "No, mom. People might see that I have a sippy cup and they might think that I'm a baby!"

Now, I know that it's quite developmentally normal for kindergarteners to want to differentiate themselves from "babies". However, I was struck her desire to hide, to manage what others saw of her. She was developing a fear based impulse to be hyper aware of how others might see her. I know that some people live in this fear their whole lives. Maybe she's right. Maybe the other kids would make fun of her but the mom in me was still sad to see the chains of image management beginning to have a place in my innocent baby's life.

I put the picture of Adam and Eve at the top of this post because I've been thinking about their story. It's a story of the freedom and innocence that was God's original intention for us crushed by the sinful reality of our hearts (and this world). They were naked in the garden because, being totally dependent on God, they did not have to cover themselves up. They were free to be fragile creatures and still be okay because they were in a complete trust relationship with a God who fully took care of them. Only with the advent of independence came the need to cover and protect themselves. Independence from God begat shame, anxiety, fig leaves, image management and so much more.

I long for the freedom and innocence of the garden. I get so sick of living in this world of deceptive image management. I'm tired of being a woman in a culture where the message is that you have to be super skinny to be physically affirmed. I wish I could stop wondering if I was smart or friendly or charming or witty enough in this or that conversation. I yearn to be able to live just one day not being concerned about how others are evaluating me. Wouldn't that be so amazing? Just to be who you are and not be worried about it? There is a part of me that admires that part of my son who is free in this way. He just is who he is, take him or leave him.

I had an encouraging moment with my other daughter, Hope, the other day. We are needing to find a better school placement for Josh so we checked out the special education class at Hope's school (Josh is currently at a different school). When I told her that it was probably not a good fit for Josh, Hope started to cry.

"But I want Josh to go to my school!" she lamented. "I want to see him everyday, Mommy!"

As I comforted her, I cherished the fact that, Hope is not (yet) concerned about being associated with this kid who walks around flapping and making strange noises. She is aware that he is different but she is not embarrassed by him. When we go out in public and Josh has his hands down the back of his pants, she just says, "Hands out, Joshie!" Her love for him trumps shame. I love the freedom of this innocence. I am writing this blogpost to help me to remember it.


  1. These are good words, Susan, for all of us. They feel like a sermon to me.

  2. Susan, thanks for sharing this! I love your line "Just to be who you are and not be worried about it." I feel like I've been working on that my whole life. Thanks for your wise words.

  3. Awesome words to share and be vulnerable with on your blog Susan! This was your first posting I've read ..and I want to read more! I will say one place people can come and be free of shame is Celebrate Recovery - there people are honest with what they are struggling with and they find freedom and acceptance. I wish there were more places like that around!

  4. I've been wrestling with your words ever since I read them, Susan. This is what they became.

  5. I loved, loved, loved this. So very true....