Shame and connection; the language we use matters

I am a good mom; I sometimes say unkind things

Reading Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, I am high on the idea of connection. The power of connection, what it really is, why we seek it and what threatens it. Brené calls herself a “shame researcher” and initially, I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by that. She defines shame as: the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

Why is shame relevant to connection? Because, as Brené says, shame is the fear of disconnection. “We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection — its the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.”

Shame Vs. Guilt

When I was less aware of my language and practicing far less self love, my go to phrase when my kids did something wrong was, “What is wrong with you? What were you thinking?” It would fly out of my mouth rather quickly when I was triggered — usually by a mess or loud noise. These words were shaming. They implied you are bad. Of course my goal was to get my kids to see things from my perspective. To have them ideally respond with, You’re right mom! I was not thinking about the consequences of my actions. Now that you mention it, I will make sure to exhibit perfect self control going forward. I’ve yet to get that response.

With increased awareness, I am trying to shift my words away from shame. You aren’t bad. The choice you made was bad, but YOU my dear are a good person who made an unsafe choice. The difference has been incredible for both me and my kids.

The best example I’ve seen to delineate the two is shame = I am bad while guilt = I did something bad.

Moving away from Shame

For so many reasons, I’m working on reducing my shaming language, both toward my kids and toward myself. It completely counteracts my messaging; if I keep implying to my kids you are bad, they will certainly start to believe that. Further, they will likely continue to act in ways that reinforce this belief that I have placed on them.

Thankfully, most classrooms have moved away from “traffic light” behavior systems. The idea being good behavior equals green and bad behavior earns them a place on yellow/red. If I am a kid that gets moved to red during morning circle and have already “lost recess,” what’s my incentive for improving my behavior? I’m not advocating for ignoring or ‘allowing’ bad behavior. However, it is naive to think we can tell kids “they are bad” and expect them to demonstrate “good” behavior.

Language Shift

In an effort to use less shaming language with my kids, I try and separate their behavior from who they are. Given the fact that not that long ago I was frequently using shaming language, I am no poster child of perfection! Take this as an example. Does it serve me at all to say, Because I used shaming language with my kids, I am a bad mom? NO! I am a good mom who sometimes uses unkind words. Plain and simple. I truly believe no one is bad. Our choices may be unsafe, unkind, hurtful or rude, but those choices do not make us bad or unworthy of connection.

I hope this also highlights the importance of our internal shaming language as well. Many of us are excellent at beating ourselves up, thinking that is going to be helpful (?). It has yet to help me. The more I remember to be kind to myself, the more capable I am at showing kindness to my kids. Dr. Laurie Santos, Yale professor and host of The Happiness Lab podcast recently interviewed researcher and author Kristin Neff about self compassion. Interestingly, Neff explained that, “Self compassion is not really self focused at all, even though the word self is in there. It’s just saying life is difficult for everyone. All human beings make mistakes. I’m not alone. And that ability to not feel alone is one of the most powerful aspects of self compassion.”


Connecting with my kids, with my self, and with others is absolutely my purpose. I will continue to make mistakes and practice self compassion, remembering I am not alone. I will channel Sonya Renee Taylor’s advice that “Radical self love is an internal journey that impacts our external reality.” And Maya Angelou’s wisdom, “When you know better, you do better.” I now know that shame is the fear of disconnection and the last thing I want is for my kids to feel disconnected. For them to think that their behavior makes them unworthy of connection. They are good kids who sometimes make unkind choices. And I am a good mom who also sometimes makes unkind choices as well.

“Human, no more, no less, human like me.

Dr. Edith Eger

[Stay tuned for a follow up on connection and empathy. I thought that’s where this post was going but alas, disconnection/shame found its way onto the page first.]

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