The power of shame

The aim of the Dutch Foundation for Kinship Questions is to break the taboo surrounding the topic of special family situations and to get people talking more about it. Examples of such special situations include children born as a result of an extramarital relationship, incest or rape, or through a secret relationship with a priest. It could also concern so-called children ‘born of war’, i.e. where the father was a member of an enemy, allied or peacekeeping force and the mother a local citizen. Or the situation in which someone you thought was your sister is actually your mother (and therefore the person you assumed to be your mother is in fact your grandmother). Additionally, the foundation’s efforts are geared towards breaking the taboo of situations where parents have falsely been accused of incest, where children have not been told for years that they were in fact adopted, etc. All in all, an estimated 600,000 Dutch family situations are considered to fall into this category (1 child out of 10)!

The conference looked at the theme of shame; our most hidden – and often most denied – emotion. It is a feeling that almost everybody is familiar with. A situation when you’d rather be somewhere else at that moment. The feeling is uncomfortable and perhaps painful. However, shame is in essence a human emotion with a positive function. The mechanism, with its basis lying in fear of not being accepted by the group, causes us to behave in ways that comply with the norms and values of society. It makes us aware that we sometimes make mistakes in our thinking and behaviour and that we also occasionally need help. Shame can also help us to open our eyes that had been closed up till then, and to set something in motion. For example, it might be the starting point for critical self-examination or for wanting to change course. Seen from the positive side then, shame can function as an alarm, shock, warning, eye-opener, motor or a yardstick with respect to inhuman behaviour. Shame can help us to think about good and evil in a broader way, as well as more in depth.

There is however also an ineffective form: negative shame. This arises when the healthy, human emotion turns into shame as a state of being. In its extreme form, shame as a state of being takes over your whole identity. When your identity is based on shame, you imagine that your deepest being is damaged and that you are not worthy. It keeps you small and causes you to lose your self-respect.

That’s what you see happening with Dutch Foundation for Kinship Questions relatives for example. They don’t talk, they keep quiet – or are forced to keep quiet – about certain subjects, they often operate on the edges of silence, deny their origins, are not aware of their situation or can’t deal with it. They don’t let themselves be heard or dare to speak out, they want to stay unnoticed in their situation. They often have the feeling that they are not wanted, or that they don’t have the right to exist, that they’re not important. Sometimes they try to prove the opposite or live in an invincible here-and-now; the important thing being not to acknowledge yesterday or to anticipate tomorrow.

How can we deal with feelings of shame? My most important tip is: take these feelings seriously rather than suppressing them, and find the means to express them. After all, the things you resist will remain. It’s only when you accept something that you can change it (Neale D. Walsch). And when you’re doing this, ask yourself whether the fact that you’re ashamed is a negative or positive thing. If it’s negative, shame is actually pointless and you need to try to get rid of this feeling. If it’s positive, it’s a signal you have to listen to and act accordingly. And if you take the signals seriously, then think about how you would like the situation to be. And think in terms of opportunities and not limitations.

For me personally, I was ashamed of the fact that my parents got divorced. During my training at the Royal Military Academy, various fellow students in my second year still didn’t know that this was the case. I avoided the subject. The shame resulted in me not even talking about it to Petra, a girlfriend I was very much in love with at the time. When she finally found out, after two months, she put an end to our budding relationship. It proved once again that I wasn’t able to talk about my feelings. It opened my eyes and that was when I made the conscious choice to take a different approach to life.

What are you ashamed of? My challenge this time for the coming weeks is for you to take an hour to explore one or more of your feelings of shame. Decide for yourself whether the fact that you’re ashamed of it is a positive or negative thing. And ask yourself how you want to deal with it and what you want to do differently. You can write about it, for example, talk about it to a friend, express it in a drawing or painting, or discuss it in a coaching session. You can contact me to request a free sample session.

Be proud to be ashamed!

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