No. 4 – Shame, on me
It took me 40 years to learn how to say “no thanks” to a Super Bowl party. Oddly enough, regardless of my complete lack of interest in football, I have hosted several of the parties myself. This year, on Super Bowl Sunday, in learning to listen to myself, I declined an invitation because I had no interest in the game. My history when not hosting had been to show up, ignore the game, eat tiny buckets of queso, stare at the halftime shows and then eat more glamorously processed carbs and sugars because, outside of the food, I had no idea what was going on.
Much like other sports, my older brother excelled in football. The sport brought about a bond between my brother and my dad as early as I can remember. In the south, football is right up there with religion and childbirth. It’s a big deal.
My Dad signed me up for football because that is what made sense to him. I went to every practice and pursued the game, because that was what made sense to me.
I was a very small kid, especially in comparison to my brother. My mom would buy my brother a brand-new shirt for his school photos. The next year, when I was in his previous grade, she would attempt to have me wear the shirt, but I was about three sizes behind him. I was a small kid.
“On the football field, I felt alone. There was a tremendous lack of confidence on my part, that I now see as being put in plain sight of something that I had no interest in, and yet encouraged to perform. In addition to a scrawny frame, we had two kids on the team whose dads were the coaches. Both of the coaches’ sons were in the middle of every play, never on the sidelines. These 2 kids were best friends and would often corner me and make fun of: my shoes, the way I throw the ball, the way I run, my haircut, my name, and anything else I simply could not help. Their dads would see how their sons treated other kids and remained reserved and stoic.”
I never told my dad what these kids were saying. I did not have an ally, but as 6-year-old boys do, I digested the impact as there being something wrong with me. Why did I wear those shoes? Why did I throw the ball that way? Why did I run like that? Why do I have this haircut? Why is my last name so long?
Kids don’t have a filter for this type of treatment. Kids are made innocent, naive, trusting and wonderfully eager to be loved. Therefore, with each new name or new thing they found wrong with me, I shrunk a little and believed something was wrong with me. I was different, and in the worst possible way. My innocent, small self certainly experienced the difference being more sensitive, aware and lacking confidence. I felt apologetic to others for that wiring, because it did not seem to have any influence on my own survival or ability to fit in.
Each day before practice, I would wonder if there was something different about me that day that would make me acceptable, part of the team. Maybe today, I would intercept the ball and score a touchdown. Maybe this whole thing will click for me, and those other boys will see that I too can do great things on the football field.
The practice season was over and soon we were to start playing the games on Saturday mornings. I began to have more anxiety and fear. Being teased and taunted amongst my teammates was one thing but having to suit up with these kids and be on the field in front of others was another layer of humiliation. I saw one solution: Just quit.
The first week of the season I began to come up with reasons why I should not play football. In my 6-year-old way, I communicated to my dad that I did not like it and just wanted to come home. Once the games started, the coaches played me very little. That was my new angle. I explained to my dad that it was a waste of time, and they hardly let me play. “Dad, I am not good at football.”
My dad was a quiet man. Passive, yes, but in nature, quiet. One Saturday morning a few weeks into the season, he came to my room and told me to get ready for the game. He never explained why I had to keep playing. He never suggested we practice together to improve, and in no way was this bonding us. I was identifying less and less with this team sport and felt trapped, a pawn if you will, for someone else’s pleasure.
On the way to the game, I pleaded with my dad. “Please don’t make me play today.” I will play next week, but not this week. Please, can we go home?”
As I stood on the sidelines, with each blow of the whistle and each new play, I would simply glance over at my dad, as if to say, “See, I am on the sidelines. Why are we here?”
I saw my dad move toward the coach. I am not privy to what he said, but after a brief chat, my dad nodded his head and let me know I was no longer playing.
There was a sense of pride in me that my dad listened to me, and I won. He finally saw my side, and he agreed … with me! He thought I was right, and in my little boy way, I interpreted that to mean, that even all the teasing (that my dad knew nothing about) was also wrong. And even the way the coaches allowed their sons to treat the other kids (that my dad knew nothing about), was surely wrong.
I wasted no time. I ripped the helmet from my head and exited the field on to the track to catch up with my dad. I felt a sense of closeness to my dad. I felt he was honoring me, so I was eager to walk side by side with him, as we said goodbye to my history with football.
I ran to catch up with my dad. I ran fast, and called, “Dad, dad I’m coming.” My dad was quite some ways ahead of me and was walking with a quick brisk toward his truck. I called again “Dad, wait for me.” I adjusted my hip pads that were sliding down, caught my breath and then ran as fast as I could. I was unable to catch up with him without stopping.
I can still hear my cleats hitting the asphalt. Each click to get closer to my dad. To share in our camaraderie that this little nightmare was no more.
I made one more sprint. One more call, but the calling out began to be more of a question, “Dad?”
In that final sprint, I paused. I stared ahead, and realized my dad, not once, had paused to let me catch up to him.
I understood for the first time: my dad was ashamed of me.
What I thought was him defending me was him sentencing me. What I thought was him separating me from those messages was him affirming every … single … one. I immediately regretted that I had ever mentioned wanting to leave the game. My heart was crushed.
This was my first encounter with shame.
We sometimes went to Dairy Queen on Saturdays after chores or my brother’s games. I knew in this scenario, not to ask. So, we rode home in silence, with him passing on every opportunity to express that I still matter.
That simple moment mapped a treacherous course for me to always hide, never explore myself, and always present what I think my dad wants to hear. This also mapped a painful existence of being my father’s son. This was a mild introduction of what lay ahead for me and my father.
30 years later, during an EMDR session, I was instructed to ask little 6-year-old Nate why this memory keeps coming up. What is it that has you stuck here? What is it you want me to see? Often in EMDR, you are encouraged to respond to the part of you who endured the traumatic event. To speak directly to the age of yourself when you had little resources of how to manage pain.
I had grown numb of my dad’s existence for a couple of decades. We had not spoken in some time and had no interest in one another’s’ lives. I had grieved the best way that I knew how and felt I had proceeded this chapter.
I engage with my 6-year-old self. I sit quietly, eerily quiet, and allowed myself to feel whatever emotions and/or memories that needed to come out. I needed to release this 6-year-old from whatever pain he was still marked by.
The impact was significant. I was so numb about my Dad’s presence that the 6-year-old is afraid to show me what he feels. “I loved my dad. I loved him so much,” says this 6-year-old. “I know he hurt me, but I still loved him a lot.”
I had forgotten. I had long abandoned that reality, that at one early part of my life: I loved my dad.
I realized that much of the behavior my dad forced on me, I was repeating for my inner child. I was not giving him room to breathe, and it was exceptionally important, that I, 36-year-old Nate, remember how painful it was to give my inner child options to journey and express himself.
That day freed up the 6-year-old Nate from feeling the same intense pressure he had always felt: Present what is pleasing to others.
I had to be reminded of what truly was, and experience that pain again in order to move past it and be a healthier version of myself.
In order to be completely available to have this memory heal, I invited that 6-year-old little Nate, who had been teased, bullied, dismissed and already experienced tons of other confusion, to share with me his full hurt. All of it. And when he was done, I envisioned myself kneeling down, looking at him face to face and letting him know I think he is a brave little guy for speaking up … and I pulled him in to me. Me, the strong, aware 36-year-old … and I felt he had more strength than me. He did the unthinkable and took a risk with exposing himself again … this time to be embraced … and celebrated. So, now little Nate no longer has to hold on to being responsible for how his dad responded, nor how I was holding him captive. He is able to finally place the helmet to the side, and all the shame with it. Now, when my shame is triggered, I own it. I work through it. I give whatever part of me that needs a voice, a safe place to express itself. Therefore, the continued expression of generational shame…stops.
In closing: Shame is a deeply invasive emotion that many of us are blind to. We have all digested messages that suggest who we are is inadequate, inappropriate, too different or downright not OK. This is shame speaking. Nowhere behind the walls of shame is there ANY evidence that you should feel this way. It is a default emotion used to cope because other coping skills have not registered in our minds.
Shame is extremely isolating and will convince you to never say out loud what you long for or how you truly see yourself.
The number one root of arrogance (bullies) is shame.
Shame will hijack your ability to receive unconditional love.
Shame is not conviction. Conviction is the awareness that your actions were wrong. Shame says WHO YOU ARE is wrong.
If shame is riddled in your memories, you are most likely shaming others or available to be shamed by others. This is deeply threatening for repetition in each passing generation, until dealt with at the root.
If shame is resting in a place in you, that needs to be addressed. Do whatever you can to send the shame on its way.
Let’s not use shame (even unknowingly) to encourage someone else to make a decision.
Let’s move past the expectations that there is a specific role a child needs to play to satisfy a parent. Let’s celebrate human life that can speak up, and encourage being different, especially while their hearts are compelled to be loved, accepted and known, in the gentlest ways…
Be well. I am fighting for each of you.
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