All in the family
Authors note: the following story is a fictional account and is for demonstration only.
Chester’s palms began to sweat.
Each time they drove by mile marker seven, his dad tapped the horn and uttered, “Five more minutes!” His father, “Uncle Chet” as he was known to the rest of the extended family, was the eighth and final sibling. Every month, at least 18 family members gathered at the grandparents for a get-together. Chester’s family, much to his chagrin, rarely missed out on this event.
Most people would be envious of how frequently these families met and treasured this time together. But as much as all the others valued it, Chester despised it even more. No one in the world knew how much he detested these gatherings except for his little sister, Gina. She was the only one he could confide in. But every time they discussed it, he made her promise not to tell anyone.
At school, the other sixth graders thought Chester was kind of cool. His cousins, on the other hand, saw him as clumsy, even nicknaming him CC for Clumsy Chester. You see, five years ago Chester spilled a glass of soda on his shirt and since then, every time they got together, he unwittingly had some accident which his cousins seized upon, never hesitating to laugh and make fun of him.
Chester, being a younger cousin, refused to give them the pleasure of seeing him hurt. He’d distract himself by twisting his tongue inside his mouth or pinching his thigh. So far on this visit, he had avoided calamity and with only a half hour left, his confidence soared.
The grandkids followed grandpa into the backyard for the traditional marshmallow roast and as Chester slipped the hot confectionery off the end of the stick, it splatted in his lap. Immediately, the cousins chuckled as if they were watching him in anticipation of this accident. Frustrated beyond measure, no amount of thigh pinching could deter him from holding back the tears.
On the ride home, Chester was his usual quiet self while his parents recapped the highlights from the day’s festivities. They weren’t outside to witness the marshmallow mishap, nor did they hear their nieces and nephews making fun of him.
“What’s wrong, son?” his mother asked.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. “I’m just tired.” His family usually was the last one to leave which only prolonged his misery.
When they returned home, everyone went straight to bed. A half hour after his parents turned off their lights, Chester tiptoed into Gina’s room and unloaded his grief, sadness, and shame. This ritual began about a year ago when he was so distraught that he asked Gina if he could come into her room and talk. She was incredibly understanding for an eight-year-old and did her best to console him every time.
On this occasion, Chester cried more than usual, even taking Gina’s pillow and covering his mouth not to wake his parents. The most frustrating dilemma was that he couldn’t bring himself to tell his parents. It was the highlight of their month and the last thing he wanted to do was upset his mom. Even though she was not related by blood, Chet’s family treated her like their sister.
Gina pleaded with him to tell their parents, but Chester assured her it was better to stay silent. “This way,” he reasoned, “only one person gets hurt instead of two people.” Gina wasn’t so sure but agreed because she admired her big brother so much.
The above story is not simply another situation highlighting shame. What it also reveals is that in certain circumstances, others create expectations in how they presume we will act, causing us to feel deeply ashamed.
Chester was not clumsy in the slightest. But the anxiety he felt after five years of continual harassment seemed to dictate his unplanned accidents. No matter how hard he tried, their expectations fueled his anxiety which ultimately caused these unintentional misfortunes.
The behaviors are not limited to clumsiness. In other circumstances it may have to do with our physical characteristics. Perhaps we can be overly curious or much smarter than our peers and they seize on our strengths simply to make us feel bad about our achievements. There are countless examples of how shameful thoughts and/or actions can be triggered by shameful feelings about ourselves.
How many of you have been in a situation similar to Chester’s? How many of you have been like his cousins? Truthfully, they may have had no idea how much their actions amplified Chester’s shame. Nevertheless, the hopelessness and despair overwhelmed him every time he thought about another family gathering.
It’s incidents like these that magnify shame. Even more damaging is that Chester undoubtedly reflected on these moments several times throughout the month and each time, it reinforced the negative perceptions he felt about himself. Although no one had any ill intent, these times of “family fun” continued to plague him in many ways. Granted, strong family connections are great, but their success should never be at the demise of one of their own.
Now imagine situations not involving family where people have no concern for the well-being of the one being shamed. These incidents are not restricted simply to children. Adults are often more cruel. Men will tell other men to “man up,” or that speaking up is seen as “snitching.” And don’t even think about showing emotions because that is the greatest of all.
Breaking out of these situations is extremely difficult because of the unintended expectations we’ve unintentionally put on ourselves. Our blunders may be perceived as normal, sometimes feeling strange if we don’t act in a shameful manner.
If you find yourself in one of these situations, the best action you can take is to become aware of and stop this destructive pattern. Realize when it happens and the moment you begin to feel shameful, forgive yourself and tell yourself it’s okay because you’ve been repeating this behavior for quite a while. Being aware of these situations allows you to take steps to remedy them.
It’s also very easy to act as one of Chester’s cousins did. The amusement at someone else’s misfortune can be funny or entertaining. However, we should do our best not to contribute to another’s shame. Recognizing this type of behavior in ourselves is perhaps one we all can take steps to change as well.
I do hope Chester’s story has helped you consider incidents in your own life and cause you to take action to fight shame – whether you were the victim or the antagonist.