Mama, We've Got Ourselves
A Selfish Little Girl Here
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Last February, I was sitting in a booth at Red Lobster in Dothan, Alabama. It was my mother’s 87th birthday and my two sisters and I had driven from our homes in Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee to spend the day with her and take her out to dinner. (My mother doesn’t ask for much. Red Lobster is her idea of a gourmet meal.)
We were all sharing family memories and having a wonderful time together when from the booth next to us we heard, “Mama, I think we’ve got ourselves a selfish little girl here.”
A couple with three daughters sat in the booth next to us. The girls looked like they were around six, eight, and ten and the “selfish” one had her back to us.
I don’t know what the little girl did to deserve that assessment of herself, but for the next twenty minutes the father proceeded to tell her how selfish she was, and he said it loud enough for everyone in our corner of the restaurant to catch every word. He covered everything he could think of to prove how selfish she was…she didn’t want to share her toys, she liked the biggest piece of pie, and on and on.
He finished his tirade by telling her that no one would ever like her and she would never have any friends and bad things would happen to her because she was such a selfish person. And to punctuate every accusation, he would enlist agreement from the girls’ mother by saying something like, “Mama, our selfish little girl isn’t going to have any friends, is she?”
At that point, I stood up and walked by their booth. Not only did I have to go to the restroom, but I wanted to get a look at the “selfish” girl. (I also wanted to punch the father out.)
There she was, not more than six years old, with a look of shame and embarrassment on her face that I have seldom seen in a child. She was hunched down in her seat with her head down and her eyes on her plate. She was very pretty, with long brown hair.
I had serious thoughts of intervening, but realized if I did it might become even worse for the child. The father might blame his embarrassment at my intervention on her and who knows what would happen to her when she got home.
This event has stuck in my mind because with Father's Day coming up I've been reminded of my own father who died several years ago. So I wanted to share some thoughts.
Having never been a father myself, I can’t really speak from any level of experience other than what it was like to be a girl who wishes I had been fathered differently. And I’m going to really stick my neck out here and probably will get it chopped on in a flurry of e-mails from readers.
I grew up in a very conservative Baptist home. The model for fathering my father had was that children were basically expected to be seen and not heard and fathers were emotionally-distant breadwinners. When it came to children, mothers provided the nurturing and fathers provided the groceries and discipline.
I had what I thought was a fairly happy, stable childhood. Mama stayed home and raised me and my two sisters and Papa went off to work and provided for us. And when we needed discipline, Papa provided that in the form of his belt on our backsides.
But when I got older, I realized I was carrying a huge load of shame, because the traditional child-rearing methods that I was brought up with used shame-based discipline. So I wasn’t just taught that I had done “bad” things, somehow I had internalized a message that I WAS bad.
My father was never verbally abusive like the little girl’s in Red Lobster, but somehow the same message came across—“You’re not good enough, nobody is going to like you, and bad things are going to happen to you.” I can't really blame my father, because he was a product of his theology and upbringing. What I can do is take responsibility for healing my shame.
Here’s an explanation of shame-based discipline I took from an internet article:
“Shame is designed to cause children to curtail behavior through negative thoughts and feelings about themselves. It involves a comment - direct or indirect - about what the child is. Shaming operates by giving children a negative image about their selves - rather than about the impact of their behavior. Shaming makes the child wrong for feeling, wanting or needing something. Shame is the feeling of being unworthy, inadequate, or defective, expressed in the belief that: ‘There's something wrong with me.’"
More about shame: “Shame is the only emotion that attacks the self by making one believe that one is inherently defective and unlovable. This crippling emotion destroys self-confidence and prevents one from achieving or enjoying success. When shame pervades one’s day-to-day existence, one is torn between one’s need to empower oneself and the need to preserve one’s relationships.”
Of course, right now a lot of you reading this are thinking, “Well, from a Christian perspective, you ARE bad. There’s no one righteous, no not one.” That’s not the kind of bad I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kind of thinking you’re bad that causes you to believe deep down inside that you don’t matter, you’re worthless, you don’t deserve to be here, you don’t deserve to be loved, and there is some external standard that you are supposed to live up to that no matter what you do, you’ll never be good enough, never measure up. It’s a combination of shame and performance mentality.
But the worst thing about shame if you’re a Christian is that you tend to think that God has the same feelings about you that you have about yourself. This creates a huge problem. How in the world are you supposed to have a deep, intimate relationship with a God you think has written you off as worthless and unloveable?
As John Bradshaw says, "When I feel guilt, I feel that I have made a mistake, and when I feel shame, I feel that I am a mistake." How can you believe God loves you if you feel like you're a mistake?
Shame takes six common forms and does not have to be blatant like the Red Lobster incident. In fact, it can be more damaging when it's subtle because then it's not obvious what is happening, so our defenses are down.
The six common forms of shame are:
1. The put-down: "You naughty boy!", "You're acting like a spoiled child!", "You selfish brat!", "You cry-baby!" "You're mean!" "Rug rat"
2. Moralizing: "Good little boys don't act that way" "You've been a bad little girl" “God isn’t pleased when you act that way” “Angels are crying right now because of what you’ve done”
3. Age-based expectations: "Grow up!" "Stop acting like a baby!" "Big boys don't cry ” "You're 10 years old--you should be able to do this by now""
4. Gender-based expectations: "Toughen-up and take it like a man!" "Don't be a sissy!" “Stop being so emotional!” “Don’t be such a silly girl”
5. Competency-based expectations: "You're hopeless!" “You’ll never be good at anything” "You should be able to do this math by yourself " "You should know better than that" "Any idiot could have figured that out"
6. Comparisons: "Why can't you be more like so-and-so?" "None of the other children are acting like you are" "You're not as _____as your sister (brother) "
Shame not only makes us feel like we intrinsically have no value, but it also gives us a distorted perception of what love really is. Why? Because the people who shame us the most tend to be the people who tell us they love us. So we get mixed messages about love. On the one hand we are told we are loved, but on the other we are made to feel like we are not worthy of love.
In his book Shame: The Exposed Self, psychologist Michael Lewis says that not only do women feel more shame than men, they tend to express it differently. Typically, females have dealt with shame through depression and self-hate while males have been more likely to exhibit anger and violence.
So, where am I going with all this?
I want to address the tendency to use shame as a tool for correcting children. And we Christian home-schoolers are very likely to shame our children without even knowing it under the guise of "character building."
Why? Because we get so focused on developing Christian character in our children that we sometimes forget the message our focus may be sending to them—the message that they are somehow unloveable unless they “shape up” and develop all the character traits we are trying to instill in them.
This was brought home to me one day when I was cleaning all the accumulated pictures and quotes off the front of the refrigerator. (You know what I mean. Home schooling families tend to use their refrigerators as bulletin boards and art galleries.)
I had taken everything off the refrigerator and was ready to put some of the things back up. When I reached for “21 Rules of Our Household,” Blake stopped me and said, “Mama, please don’t put that back up there.” Blake was about 11 or 12 at the time and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t like the list of rules we had always posted on the refrigerator.
He said, “Just looking at those rules every day makes me feel like I’m no good.”
That’s when I knew that our discipline had communicated something unintended—a perception that he was basically a loser. And having to look at those rules everyday that he knew he didn’t follow perfectly just reinforced the belief in his mind and heart that it wasn’t OK to be who he was.
The rules wound up in the trash can and I paid special attention from then on to any shaming messages I might inadvertently be sending.
Since the most penetrating messages of shame seem to come from fathers, this Father’s Day I want to encourage another look at how we approach our children. Because our sons' and daughters' abilities to have deep relationships with God and with the male figures in their lives is formed out of their experience of a father's love and acceptance, God help us to not do to our children what the father in Red Lobster was doing to his daughter.
Until next time....
P.S. You're probably wondering how I dealt with my feelings of shame. What helped me most was to focus on God's love for me. It was (and still sometimes is) difficult for me to believe that He loves me unconditionally (whether I met His standards or not) and that no matter what I might think about myself, I am loveable to him. In fact, He's crazy about me.
I read and reread and reread I Corinthians 13, taking time with each description of what love is like. Love is patient....what does that mean? How would that be expressed? How does God show patience to me? How can I be more patient with myself? Since shame is a form of self-hatred, I focused on loving myself as well as on receiving God's love for me. Love is kind....
Based on my mediations on I Corinthians 13, I
wrote out a list of "How a Father Treats His Daughter When He Really, Really, Really Loves Her" and looked at the list often, meditating on what it would be like to be loved that way and asking God to let me experience that kind of love from Him since I had only known glimpses of it from my own father.
(I also wrote a list of "How a Husband Treats His Wife When He Really, Really, Really Loves Her" and used that list to think about how Jesus loves me, His Bride. Personally, I think the way a lot of Christian husbands relate to their wives is shaming.)
Another significant thing I did was stop listening to any Christian music or sermons that were what I call "pleading with God."
So much of modern Christian worship music comes from the starting point that we are pleading with God for things He has already told us are ours. And much modern Christian teaching comes from what I call a "negotiating mentality." We are trying to do certain things (pray more, be more charitable, be a better wife or mother or husband or father, fast, read our Bible more, witness, etc.) in order to qualify for more of God's blessings in our lives. These mentalities are counterproductive to developing a deep assurance that God's love for us is unconditional, that He saves us by grace .
Surprise! He already loves us and laid down his life for us and gave us every heavenly blessing while we were yet sinners. So we don't have to be good or go through any gyrations or spiritual exercises to be loved and blessed by God. We already are.
I also stopped spending time with Christians who clung to the "negotiating mentality" about God.
Finally, I loved myself. I said "No" to what I didn't want in my life and "Yes" to what I did and trusted that I wasn't being selfish and refusing to "die to self," I was simply treating myself as if I had value to God just the way I am. I started doing things I'd always wanted to do but had never felt like I deserved to do them. And I stopped doing things I had always disliked doing but felt like I was supposed to do. After all, if I am valuable to God, then what I want matters.
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