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Running the Race of Shame

Every muscle in my body protested.

Every inner voice in my being screamed from the recesses within.

"Don't do it!" they yelled.  

"You will make a fool of yourself!" they taunted.

"Why are you so stupid? Why do you want to prove to the whole world how stupid you are?"

"You know that you are a colossal failure. Now you want everyone in the world to see what a loser you are?"

It was deafening deep within. But I did what I could to ignore the deep shame and hurt that I felt from within.

The voices of shame can be deafening even in the presence of an external quietness.
"The next event will be the Parents' Race. Will Mark Lim please proceed to the reporting area?"

This was it. There would be no turning back now. So I dragged myself to the starting line, and mingled with the other homeschool dads who all looked eager to race.

"I haven't done any running since I was in National Service," I remarked to a nearby dad, probably in an attempt to explain how badly I would do in the race.

"Oh, that's not too bad. Two years isn't too long," he replied kindly.

"Er... I don't mean that I have not run since I completed my Reservist training. I mean I have not run since I finished my NS training - more than 20 years ago!" I explained sheepishly.

"Wow. That is long. Mark, you are brave," he smiled.

"Haha," I replied. "I don't know about that."

It was time to take our positions.

Then I heard the starting horn.

I ran.

And I ran.

And I finally dragged myself past the finishing line.

But not after every single other runner had completed the race.

I had done it.

I had failed yet again.

It was miserable. 

I had proven to myself and to the whole world that I was a failure once again.

What shame.

During our moments of confusion and doubt, do we know people who can help us
sort out our thoughts and help us manage the issues of life?
Shame is such an insidious creature. When it is first introduced to you it seems logical and even something that you could possibly embrace to help you deal with various situations throughout your life. You take the words said by someone, for instance a parent or a teacher or another adult who says you are stupid. Then you ponder over the words, and actually believe that you are stupid. Eventually you consider that since you are stupid, there is no need to pursue any intellectual, mental or physical challenges. You might as well accept the truth that you are stupid. 

Or is that really the truth?

Shame numbs our senses. It confuses us and makes us believe in an entire worldview of lies about ourselves.

John Bradshaw's book Healing the Shame that Binds You is a powerful book on shame and how this affect plays such a major role in our lives. Bradshaw observes that toxic shame is experienced as the “all-pervasive sense” that “I am flawed and defective as a human being.” He notes that from this vantage point, shame is no longer an emotion, but a “state of being”. As a result, Bradshaw concludes that there is a “rupture of the self within the self”, which stems from a “sense of worthlessness, a sense of failing and falling short as a human being”. 

A crisis of shame is a crisis of the identity.

The incidence of shame often occurs from way back in our childhood or adolescence, and this is a poison that is ingested throughout our lives, with each shaming incident building on the pain of the past hurtful occurrence. And when we reach adulthood, our entire being is scarred by the numerous shaming incidents in our lives; until we become a fragment of who we are; a fragment of who we can be.

My own struggle with shame is rooted in my childhood. Since young I had always been the physically inept child. Yes, I was the child who learnt to play chess when I was 5, but on the physical front I was weak. My experiences with childhood asthma meant that I had always found it more difficult than others to keep fit. Exercise was a torture as it meant I had to breathe in more oxygen, and that was difficult for me as a person with asthma. 

Playgrounds can be places of fun for some children; but for others they could be places of
isolation or places of great trauma.
Playground experiences were traumatic events for me. In fact I cannot remember most of my encounters at the playground; I don't even remember going to the playground at all. This was probably due to my poor vestibular sense - my lack of balance and spatial orientation. I only remember two incidents. The first instance was when I fell from my bicycle and had to be rushed to the doctor to get my knee treated. The second incident was in secondary school, when I fell from the monkey bars and fractured my arm. Both incidents compounded my shame that I was no good physically and that I should avoid all physical activities since I know I would continue to fail.

The internalisation of shame as an identity is cemented by those around you; those who say hurtful words that compound the feelings of shame that you already feel, those who choose to respond indifferently to the small but important successes in your areas of weakness, or those who choose to be absent either physically or emotionally during moments that are important to you. I have experienced all three of these situations.

So as I ran at the Homeschool Sports Day yesterday, those feelings of deep shame overwhelmed me. I would never have signed up for the race, but only did so as I was under the mistaken impression that it was part of a Family Race that would also be joined by Sue and the kids.

The older son. All excited and ready to run the race. As parents, are we there to
support our kids all the way come what may?
My two sons also had their individual races.

I had the privilege of walking my older son to the reporting area and to the starting point, taking photos of him as he prepared himself for the race. This was a hard thing for him to do, and our almost-8-year-old was very anxious, doubting himself and his ability to run.

"Z, you can do it. Daddy loves you very much and I am so proud of you," I said.

I will never forget the look in his eyes; that look of anxiety and fear, yet tempered by a reassurance that his father was with him by his side; and that his father would be with him all the way, come what may.

As the starting horn sounded, my son gave it his best, and ran like the wind to the finishing line. It was physically hard for me, but I ran parallel to him, for as long as I could, before I too was swept away by all the other 7 and 8-year-old competitors.

Z came in third among his group of 8 competitors, and I was so proud of him.

As parents, we have our own demons to fight. I know that my struggle with shame has been a long one. To deal with shame you have to address each and every incidence of shame; and deal with the grief and the loss associated with each instance. It's often likened to peeling an onion, when you have to deal with the stinging effect from the juices each time you peel off a layer.  

But we do it for our children.

For when we can understand why we were shamed as a child, we can then choose to ourselves avoid words and actions that could shame our child. Our children may win in the numerous races of their lives, or they could lose. It's our response that make a difference.

For we want our children to know that they are persons of immeasurable worth; individuals who are secure in their identity, and persons who are whole in the "self within the self".


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