Shame on the Ball Field :: how we begin to Shift It
This article first published in Natural Mother Magazine, July 2016
Standing in the dugout he stared through the chain link as if summoning all the courage in his body for his next at-bat. From behind his Dad asked quietly, “Where do you want to go to dinner tonight, son?” He didn’t seem to hear him.
It seemed an odd time to break his focus with such questions. He repeated his question, this time lower and deeper, “Where do you want to go to dinner tonight, son?”
The boy turns to him with tears in his eyes and says, “Dad, I don’t know if I can do it.”
To which his father simply repeated, this time at the speed of cold molasses, “Where do you want to go for dinner, son?”
Then he was up, he opened the gate, jogged onto the field, chocking back tears, his body language screaming defeat. He tried. He tried hard, and, he didn’t make it; He only got to first base, not third. The crowd cheered. His Dad shook his head in dismay as he turned and walked away.
No fancy dinner out for them tonight.
“Shame drives two big tapes: never good enough, and who do you think you are?” says Brene Brown.
In my work as a parenting coach, I hold space for many stories to unfold and meet the light of day. Somewhere in each of us is a voice of shame, a voice that questions our self worth, our right to love and belonging. This voice of shame has a tight grip; it drives the success, or lack thereof, of our lives when left in the unconscious depths.
Often these voices began to whisper, or shout, when we were very young children, in moments when we simply didn’t feel we were good enough to be worthy of love. Trouble is, shame takes hold and becomes the script of our life, it doesn’t stay isolated to one incident on the ball field.
When I ask what inspires a coach to coach, or what inspires a parent to sign their child up to play team sports, I most often hear sentiments that speak to gaining valuable relationship skills, learning to work as a team, building childhood memories and character, and having the opportunity to spend time together.
On the field the other day Coach told them all to run a lap. Peter could barely keep up a jog for the last leg. He’s not as fit as his teammates. His parents are in the deep throes of divorce and it shows on his sweet face, and in his overall stamina. As he approached, Coach yelled: “What’s wrong with you, boy? Run again!” I could only imagine how he might have felt, trying to eek out another lap with his whole team watching.
The voice of shame, “what’s wrong with you”, has the potential to seep into every corner of our lives and highjack our willingness to reach for the stars, to chase our dreams, to engage in meaningful relationships, even to parent our children with love.
We are hard wired to seek belonging - our whole being knows that there’s safety in belonging. Once that voice of shame takes hold we begin to avoid the things that might risk exposing us, blowing our cover. We’ll do about anything to stay under the radar so no one knows that we’re actually “not good enough”.
The voice of shame keeps us small.
What we know, according to the research of Brene Brown, is that “shame is highly, highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide and eating disorders.” Nowhere in my conversations with parents, and coaches, have I ever heard that any of the above makes our desired outcome list when we consider dedicating months out of each year on the sports field with our children.
So what is it that we really want our children to gain from their experience of playing sports?
From my conversations with parents, I believe we most want our children to have what it takes to succeed in life, not to kick some ass and always come out on top, but to feel happiness. Under all the layers of it, I believe we want to know that our children are really okay, that they feel truly fulfilled in their hearts.
We have a tremendous opportunity on the sports field to focus on building character, to learn to work cooperatively even in a competitive setting, to learn to be resilient, kind and compassionate. We have the opportunity to cultivate emotional intelligence, which is a top predictor of living a truly fulfilling life.
Here’s the rub: we can only give to our children what we truly have. If we’ve never felt the gift of compassion from another, if shame is so thick inside us that we can’t feel an ounce of love for ourselves, it isn’t possible to give compassion to our children, much less coach them to be compassionate towards others.
Shame is running amok on the field because we, ourselves, are riddled with shame. These voices are passed from one generation to the next until someone has the recognition of it and decides to do the work to break the chain.
I don’t for a second think that any parent, teacher, or coach would pass on the voice of shame consciously, especially knowing that shame is highly correlated with many life-diminishing ailments such as eating disorders, depression and worse. I always assume the most positive intent, and within the parents I work with, have yet to be proven otherwise. We are driving our children to perform, to look tough, to succeed, and we’re using our internal voice of shame to do so.
“The antidote to shame,” says Brene, “is empathy. It can not survive being spoken, and being met with empathy.”
Back on the ball field, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a young boy throw, kick, or bat a ball right into another child. Their natural instinct is to feel for that child (empathy) who just got hurt, sometimes they even cry for them. The tragedy is not that someone is hurt on the field, but that we shut down the capacity for empathy right then and there. “That’s the game of ball. Don’t let it bother you. Shake it off”, we tell them. We’re not just telling the child who is hurt to shake it off, and not feel how badly it really hurts, we’re also telling the child who threw or kicked that ball not to offer their sincere apology, not to show compassion. So they stay on the pitchers mound, choke back their own feelings and internalize it all. They shut down their capacity for empathy as we perpetuate the shame cycle that, especially for men, runs a script of “never let them see your weakness”.
What if we used this very scenario to build the capacity for empathy, emotional intelligence and shame resilience? What if instead of shutting down the feeling capacity we actually cultivated it?
We are missing a tremendous opportunity to help our youngsters develop the skills it will take to thrive in their adult life. We are shutting down their greatest internal compass – their emotional intelligence. We are not encouraging them to perform better, but to stay small.
So, where do we begin to break this cycle of shame? The first step is beginning to hear it, identifying what the voice of shame sounds like. We want to hear the voice of shame both internally, in the way that we speak to ourselves, and externally in the way that we speak to others.
Brene says, “Shame needs three things to survive, secrecy silence and judgment.” By strengthening our listening for shame we begin to break the secrecy.
To thrive our children are going to need the guts to be bold and daring, to take risks and fail. They need to learn how to gain the wisdom their failures provide rather than learning to avoid them. They need to know they are worthy of love and belonging, independent of their performance. Our children will need to lean on their own emotional intelligence to find their way in rapidly changing times. They will need to depend on their empathy muscles to forge strong relationships. This is no time to let the old script of shame run our lives.
It’s time to step up our game! It begins by calling shame out of the shadows and into the light of day.
Family Foundations is a powerful first step to begin doing the work of shifting our parenting from a power-over structure which uses the tactics of shame, blame, manipulations and bribery to control to a relationship-with paradigm of parenting based on connection, cooperation, authenticity and trust.