Shame Is Something We Learn

Recently, my son Aiden danced for the first time. Without any prompting or either parent showing him how, he just started moving to the music. First his hips, then his hands, and eventually his head bobbed, as if the act were hardwired into him. It was amazing.

Dancing kid
Photo Credit: Jonathan Adami via Compfight cc

At this age, Aiden doesn’t understand social norms. He doesn’t grasp that some men don’t dance, that it’s not always appropriate to bust a move in front a room full of strangers. And I love that. All he knows is that he feels the music, and when it plays, he has to move.

This isn’t something he was taught; it just comes natural. Some day, though, Aiden may not be so quick to move his hips. Some day, his friends might make fun of him for dancing or clapping or having blond hair. Who knows. Kids are cruel. But for now, Aiden dances.

My son, who is still very much a toddler, knows no shame. What little fear he possesses, he probably learned from me, over-parenting him while he was attempting something brave. But for the most part, he is shame-less, in the very best definition of the word.

I, on the other hand, am not. Insecurity has haunted me most of my life. As a child, I was overweight and awkward, with long hair and too many flannel shirts. As a teenager, I was often picked on, pushed around, kicked, teased, and called every name in the book. The result was a heightened level of caution when approaching risk in life. I knew the pain of embarrassment, the sting of shame when you stepped out of line. And I was determined to avoid it at all costs.

This was what I held onto for years, while secretly dreaming of becoming a writer. I’d been writing my whole life but was still afraid to admit I wanted it. Who was I to attempt something so bold? But when I finally shed my shame and decided to embrace my identity, something inside me came unlocked. And what I discovered is that shame is not our natural state. It’s something we learn. [Tweet]

Pat the Cow

Not long ago, my father-in-law decided to teach Aiden to call him by his first name, Pat. The next morning, our little guy woke up, saw a book with a cow on the cover and somehow connected the two experiences. He began calling the cow, “Pat.”

Weeks later, when asked, “What does Pat say?” Aiden would reply, “Moo!” We didn’t have the heart to correct him, partly because it was so hilarious and partly because at this age he can do no wrong in our eyes.

Call us naive, but we are doing everything we can to keep our son from feeling embarrassed. We try to not unnecessarily correct him or tell him his way of seeing the world is wrong. Because maybe it’s not. Maybe in his magical world where everything is new and wonderful, all the cows are named Pat.

I’d like to believe that innocence is not a weakness, but a virtue, and it’s our job as parents to preserve it for as long as we can. Sadly, shame will come to our son soon enough, in spite of our efforts to fight it. But for now, we are enjoying watching our boy believe in what is true and good, even if it means calling all the cows “Pat.”

Remembering to dance

Isn’t it interesting that dancing comes natural, but shame is something we learn?

Shame is not like your sense of smell or sight. We are not born embarrassed. Fear and self-doubt are habits we learn, often from those who have teased us into compliance or forced us into conformity. And at some point, if we are going to discover why we were born, we must unlearn these habits.

If you and I are going to unlock our true purpose, we’ll have to deal with shame head on. We’ll have to face our demons and reclaim who we really are. Finding your calling isn’t like a job search. It’s not about learning a new skill, but about reclaiming who you really are.

Some of us have been shamed out of our dreams and passions, forced to live as shadows of our true selves. Along the way, we knew we were faking, but we just didn’t know there was an alternative.

You were told to hide your gift, that the world didn’t need what you had to offer. But those were lies.

We all have a great work in us, some unsung song demanding to be let out. Many of us, if we are attentive enough, can hear the music, vibrating in our bones. So maybe it’s time to unlearn our shame and once again remember to dance.

When was the last time you felt shame for who you were? Share in the comments.