In our recent reader survey, you said self-esteem was a top 3 concern in parenting your teenagers. We’re committed to bringing you more articles on this topic, starting with this one by teenage coach Ray Mathis, who explains the connection between shame and self-esteem, according to Rational emotive behavior therapy.
What is shame?
Shame is what we feel when we believe we don’t live up to expectations. We all have plenty of expectations of us starting early in life. Plenty of expectations means plenty of opportunities to feel shame.
Many children and teens are even regularly told, “You should be ashamed of yourself”. No one should ever say that to a child or teen. We have every right to not like what they say or do, and to tell them so in a reasonable and respectful way, and ask them to stop, and back it up with consequences if necessary. But kids will shame themselves enough without our help, some even to a morbid level that may one day cost them their lives. People sometimes say, “The problem with these kids is they have no shame”. Actually, the opposite is true.
“People sometimes say, ‘The problem with these kids is they have no shame’. Actually, the opposite is true.”
Shame also often plays out as anger, as people try to protect themselves from feeling ashamed when confronted by others. Anger gives people a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. As long as they stay angry, they don’t have to feel ashamed. Unfortunately, teachers and parents often react to the anger rather than recognize it as the person simply trying to protect themselves against real and intense shame they are generating in their own minds.
How to recognise shame
Shame can be a primary and secondary disturbance. It’s often the primary feeling people seek relief from through alcohol and drug use, and even suicide. It’s why kids shut down in school, and eventually drop out.
Shame often plays out as anxiety and/or anger. If you think you’re not living up to expectations now, or haven’t in the past, it’s easy to become anxious about doing so in the future, and dread instead of welcome challenges and opportunities. Anger gives people a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. As long as someone stays angry, they don’t have to feel their shame. When kids are feeling ashamed, you’ll usually get either “turtles” or “rattlesnakes”. And too often, what teachers do with the “rattlesnakes” is the equivalent of poking a real rattler with a stick. Never turns out well for either party.
“If you think you’re not living up to expectations, it’s easy to become anxious about doing so in the future, and dread instead of welcome challenges and opportunities.”
The kids in my ‘Tool Time’ groups are perfect examples. They have had a lifetime of being told, or getting the message in some other way, that they were not living up to expectations. They are “turtles” or “rattlesnakes”, and go back and forth at times. Viewing them this simple way helps temper and guide how I approach them.
As a secondary disturbance, shame can make people want to keep what they think and feel, or even do a secret, for fear it would reflect badly on them should others find out. Lots of bad things happen to people because they keep secrets, and irrational beliefs about themselves, others and life go unchallenged, and simple opinions start to feel like facts from shear rehearsal and practice. Shame makes them less likely to seek or accept help that is available.
The difference between self-esteem and self-acceptance
Low self-esteem is often cited as the cause of much unhealthy, self-defeating behavior. What people call low self-esteem is really:
- shame about past and current performances or behavior
- anxiety about future ones because of the past.
Too often, when we believe people suffer from low self-esteem, we try to make them feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, we technically can’t do that. The best way to combat shame and low self-esteem is to teach people to have Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA). You do that by encouraging them to believe that:
- Anything they think, feel, say or do, have in the past, or might in the future, is perfectly understandable.
That doesn’t mean it’s helpful, healthy or acceptable to others. What people think, feel, say and do often is not. Understandable simply means:
- If we put anyone else through exactly what we have each been through, others would probably end up thinking, feeling, saying and doing much the same things, and maybe even worse
- We’ll never be the first person in human history to think, feel, say or do something
- And we’ll never be the last either
- We’ll always have a lot of company.
This would hopefully help us logically realize that whatever we think, feel, say or do is simply part of being human. Understandable also means:
- We all do the best we can at the time, given what our lives have been like before we find ourselves in situations. We could have done better, but…
- No one’s perfect, everyone makes mistakes. It’s why we have so many emergency rooms, paramedics, police, and therapists. It’s why we need laws and consequences.
- We’re all what Dr. Ellis used to call Fallible Human Beings (FHBs) who at times think, feel, say and do things that make our lives worse instead of better.
Hopefully, someone would come to the logical conclusion that though whatever they think, feel, say or do is not helpful, healthy or acceptable to others, it is understandable, part of being human, and nothing to be ashamed of.
What do you think about this perspective of self-esteem versus unconditional self-acceptance?
Can you see your child – or even yourself – benefiting by trying this tool?