“Amy, Principal Pratt would like to see you in his office,” said the voice on the loudspeaker. I was sitting in my second grade classroom, quietly doing my work, and this was the first (and only, thankfully!) time I had ever been summoned to the principal’s office. Even though I had absolutely no idea what this was about, my entire body responded to the announcement: my limbs became shaky, my stomach felt queasy, and it seemed as though something warm had been poured all over me. I now know that those are the physical responses I have to the experience of shame, but at the time all I knew was that this was the worst feeling I could ever have.
Mr. Pratt was exceedingly kind as he asked me questions about some incident involving a bracelet of mine, a special one my grandparents had just sent, being found in my classmate’s desk. I answered his questions to the best of my ability (No, I did not know how he had gotten the bracelet; yes, another student had asked me if she could look at it earlier in the day), but this shame cloud that was surrounding me muddled my thoughts and made it nearly impossible for me to stay in my body . . . much less to stay present with the conversation.
Nothing at all happened after this visit. The bracelet was returned to me. I never got in trouble. I never told my parents about it. The boy never mentioned the incident to me.
But that shame cloud remained in place for days, even weeks, afterward. I remember watching a Peanuts television special the evening after my visit to the Principal’s office and thinking, very seriously, “I bet Charlie Brown doesn’t have problems like this.”
In fact, any time something tripped up a memory of that incident -- or even of my second grade year -- I could feel the warm wash of shame creeping up my back.
And what that shame crowded out was any chance of my clearly reflecting on the event. Decades later, once I had begun to work on shame and to release a bit of its stranglehold on me, I was able to review the scene and glean from it some really important pieces:
A new friend of mine, who was very charismatic and persuasive, had asked me if she could use my bracelet, mentioning something about “getting back at someone.” I didn’t understand what she meant, but I was too afraid to examine the issue. I said, “Yes,” as I did to every request made of me. She must have then hidden the jewelry inside the boy’s desk and told our teacher she had seen it there.
That little occurrence crystalizes two of my largest challenges in life: saying “no” and questioning people when something seems amiss. From this vantage point, those were my mistakes that day; those are the things for which I would like to apologize to my classmate.
For decades, though, my shame around the incident made this impossible.
The Dalai Lama reminds us that forgiveness requires a separation between the actor and the act. When the two are identified with one another, forgiveness will not result. (I’m including here a sweet video featuring several world spiritual leaders speaking on the topic)
This is true when we are forgiving another person; we must focus on the incident and the way it hurt us, because forgiveness is impossible if we identify the other person entirely with a single act.
The same is true for self-forgiveness, and this is where shame can absolutely halt the process.
Brene Brown and others have worked extensively in the areas of shame and guilt. Brown notes that we are expressing guilt when we say, “I did a bad thing,” while we are communicating shame when we instead say, “I am a bad person.”
In the latter situation, there is identification between person and action, and forgiveness is thus impossible.
My second-grade self absolutely identified herself as bad, NOT because she had done anything bad (in fact, at the time I wasn’t even sure what I had done), but because that was her go-to response when she was reprimanded at all. Indeed, to my mind, being called to the principal’s office meant that I was a bad person, regardless of what I had or had not done.
In a world where I did not have such habitual shame-responses; in a world where shame had not been instilled in me from a very young age; in a world where shame was not, as Brene Brown notes, “still the number one classroom-management tool,” perhaps I would have had the capacity to view the events that had happened and to learn some important things about myself. Maybe I would have realized at that early stage that I was challenged in areas related to speaking my truth and standing my ground. Conceivably I may have begun working to strengthen myself in those places. Who knows?
I do know that, without shame, I would have been much more likely to have asked my classmate for his forgiveness for my small part in the scheme to get him in trouble, and I would have been much more likely to have forgiven myself.
And that makes me wonder just how often that feeling of shame washing over me also washes away my possibilities for self-forgiveness.
William Blake writes, “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.”
I wonder, then, if forgiving ourselves isn’t even more difficult than that, and if shame doesn’t play a major role in creating that difficulty.
Today, I would tell that second grade boy: I’m sorry for allowing my bracelet to be used in a plot against you.
And I would tell that second grade girl: I will not mindlessly say “yes” to you again and I will ask you questions when I do not feel good about something you are saying or doing.
And I would say to my second-grade self: I forgive you for allowing yourself, and your bracelet, to be used in ways that go against your integrity.
I would take her sweet little face into my hands, look into her big eyes, and say, “This growing up is a tough business. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to learn how to apologize and make amends and atone and forgive. And all of that is sometimes really hard. But there is no shame in any of that. In fact, these are some of the most beautiful, most spiritual, experiences you will ever have.”