Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Bistro and the Dating Interview

I'm at one of those bistros with live music and I know one of the guys in the band. But we're entertaining cousins from out of town and I don't generally chat it up with more than one or two people at a time. So I'm not interacting with him. But when he finishes for the night and turns to leave, he looks my way and I wave. He smiles but walks off muttering,
"I just hope I don't end up in someone's blog."
What's that supposed to mean? I wrack my brain and decide that he means, "I hope I do end up in a blog and get some Free PR." Happy to oblige, dear. (And you need not have worried. There's no way I'd give you a bad review.)
Friends. Support your local restaurants, and if there are musicians in your neighborhood, give them reason to play. Applaud, praise them, on and off stage. Encourage the arts.

Go up to any musician you know and tell that person how much you like his or her music. It's the least you can do, and it shows good manners and good breeding, thanking people.

Don't ask for autographs, unless you have a pen in hand and a napkin.
Not much else matters, when it comes to social skill, more than sensitivity and good manners. But it's a fine art, a lost art in some families, making people feel good, not bad.

And we're in the business of feeling good, not bad, or why else would we be here on the Internet, when we could be in bed with a good book or hanging out at the beach?

Okay, here we go.

FD always complains that the family doesn't visit us. He's from a huge family, we're talking huge, something like 55 first cousins, who have been fruitful and multiplied. Most of them hold that Chicago is either (a) too cold, (b) too far, (c) too full of gangsters, or (d) not Baltimore.

But we got a nibble and plenty of notice to prepare. A cousin came to stay with us for the weekend and brought along a spouse and offspring, and we were ecstatic. Their miniature Al Pacino, the youngest, has launched successfully into adolescence, and almost as interesting, the three oldest, one more striking than the next, are ready for marriage (in my culture we still do this, marry).

On Saturday I let them pick my brain about what to look for in a marriage prospect, what to discuss on a date.

Then on Saturday night we all went out and I left the clean-up for the next day, knowing full well that leaving the clean-up is a real source of anxiety. But you do what you gotta' do in life.

And it was great, foregoing the usual stay at home, clean up the house, risk the unthinkable by renting a movie, get to bed at a reasonable hour options. But Sunday morning, in the closet, searching for something to wear, the flashbacks started, the conversations we had had, the ones between me and those young adult cousins, about what to look for in a partner.

And as words came back to me I realized I had forgotten to tell the kids something important, something else to check out when they're dating, not quite a quality as much an affect, something people don't automatically ask about, but which has great impact upon a future partner's self-esteem, and consequently, will have tremendous impact upon the self-esteem of future generations.


A sense of shame is elemental to mental health. You need a little, but not too much. Too much affects your personality, and not in a good way. It can make you angry, or the opposite, self-hating, passive, withdrawn. Shame makes people lie.

The power of shame takes its energy from criticism in early childhood. As children we can't always advocate for ourselves against bigger, more authoritative people who have bigger, edgier vocabularies. Usually these people are our parents. Our powerlessness against their criticisms contains the seeds of unworthiness. And that unworthiness can settle into our chests for the long haul, the duration of our lives.

So among the many important answers you'll want to weasel out of the potential candidate for Partner and Other Parent of your Future Progeny, while waiting for your pizza at the bistro, might be:
How did they handle criticism in the family?

Did anyone shame anyone else? Did it happen in front of other people?

Was that considered okay, shaming in the name of behavioral change?
Sometimes it isn't so terribly pathological. We may call a children a mildly pejorative name, like slob, so that he becomes interested in not being a slob (untidy would be a better word) forever.*

Some children really catch on when they're called slobs, although if you do use this intervention to build character, it's best to use the word in a less personal way. You might say, I wish the people in this house weren't such slobs! This gentle shaming gives everyone a chance to triangle you, gang up on you, make fun of you for being so O-C, since you, apparently, are the only one who cares.

If it is more direct, however, but funny, as in, You are such a slob! One day you'll get it together, maybe, but I'll probably be dead by then, it might actually work. With direct, yet gentle shaming, the child has a chance at getting it together and becoming tidier. As neat and tidy, he** is highly praised, "Look how nicely my Johnny takes care of his room!" so that his fledgling self-esteem, swimming for life during slobdom, improves.

Out of the chest, into the head, I always say. Praise goes directly to one's ego. It's a good thing, in the Things that Make Us Feel Good category of life.

Horrible shaming, as in, You're an unbelievable, disgusting, good for nothing slob, and you'll never become anything, you unbelievable loser, I can't stand to look at your face, get out of my sight, is well within definitive shaming bounds and might do the trick, damage the child forever, contribute soundly to the development of various ugly and painful personality glitches and Axis I or II or both disorders.

So mainly, you want to find out:
Did anyone call anyone lazy?
A loser?
A fool?
With gusto? With sarcasm? With hate? Disgust?

Were there tirades directed at making people feel badly about themselves?

You want to know about that, you really do, you want to know if the shaming took the form of verbal abuse. If the answer is a resounding Yes, negative labels stuck pretty well, parents used crazy glue, then the next question is, "Ever get any therapy for that?"

And if the answer to that is a resounding No! you want to find out if your date made any promises to himself, like maybe conscious or unconscious decisions, based upon shame.

Like what he would do, for example, if he married, and his spouse accidentally insulted him or somehow shamed his children, even if it was gentle shaming?

Would he get very sensitive? Would he shut down?

Would he get angry and mean, insult back? Would he leave?

Or would he have the presence of mind to say to a partner, "I think you could have said that nicer. I'm sure you didn't mean to make me (little Johnny) feel so badly, but you did."

That's the right thing to say when another person hurts your feelings. "I'm sure you didn't mean to do that, to hurt me like that." You need to give people a chance to take back what they said. Right away.

And finally, Would he do that to you? To the kids? Talk down. Shame. Do unto others. . .

This discussion about childhood can naturally flow into how a couple will want to raise children if they have that in mind. How do you get children to behave, to do the things they don't do naturally like to do, like clean up? How do you do that without shaming a child?

It can be okay, sometimes, to shame a child, you can sometimes get away with it. You have a better chance at doing it with less emotional residual if it's done with love, a better chance, perhaps, if it's done in Yiddish.

But it's possible not to be received this way, as loving, under most circumstances. And it's remembered, for sure. Shaming can be a slippery slope, places a distant second to positive reinforcement. Shaming is the easy way, the slacker way. M and M's and Hersey's Kisses require trips to the grocery store and the dentist. Work and expense. But nobody said parenting would be easy.

So you want to talk about things like these, maybe before the engagement, before you plunk down 4 grand for the ring. These kinds of things are more important than, say, Does the whole family have to eat dinner together? Or, Can you play tennis?

Go right for the emotional stuff. Sure it can be a source of pain, but it is also a source of comfort, joy, and humor. Understanding one another is a happy thing. Where you find committed relationships that work, you'll find couples who have talked about at least some of the traumas of their childhood before their engagements. They knew each other, touched one another's souls.

So take your date to your local bistro, support the music industry.
And tell them to play a little softer so you can talk about what matters. Onions on the pizza? Or not. French fries? Oh, yes. Definitely!


*In Yiddish the word for slob sounds even worse than it does in English. Parents can get a fairly decent rise out of their children using the word shlumpf. Everything is more effective in Yiddish.

**I use the masculine gender through out the rest of the post, but there's no bias. Women are put to shame, too. Never a bias, really, with child abuse.


Anonymous said...

Free PR? I knew you'd read between the lines. It sure took long enough. Great post and I'm not saying that because I'm in it or because I have good manners. If I had known that was the subject at your table I would have been off the stage and sitting at your table with the cousins. It's my favorite subject, house of origin, a most revealing source of information about anyone. Napkin Autographs? Not gonna happen. Even my ego has it's limits. Thanks for your blog. It's a wonderful gift to all your readers.

Anonymous said...

what if your family got off on shaming each other and others-what if your disagreement with them bought untold loads of negitivity your way---not just in them but in other and what about dealing with conflict--they enjoyed ripping you and others (and still do today although it is much more mild than in childhood) What if you are swimming in false gult and shame or you know others who are due to their choices....

Syd said...

I'm glad that you wrote about shaming because it is something that I think lowers self-esteem in children and really hurts. And I appreciate the fact that getting to know someone has a lot more to it than whether the toilet seat is down or up.

Wait. What? said...

Wonderful post - I wish I had read this or knew this 20 some odd years ago.

April_optimist said...

What a great post! I think the next time my daughter and I talk about such things, I'll tell her what you said in your post. I've told her to look for kindness and respect. I like this angle of shame, too, as a way to begin really important discussions.

Midwife with a Knife said...

You forgot, a childhood of shaming can lead people to do silly things like spend 15 years in medical training... not that that would have anything to do with anyone I know....

SeaSpray said...

Shlumpf? I like that word! :)

I have never called my sons a derogatory name. Some people say the your so bad and I don't do that either. What they did was bad.

One day I came home from HS with my girlfriend and when we opened my bedroom door and to immense embarrassment...we saw that my aunt had stripped my bed and put the sheets, etc. in the middle of the floor, everything else I didn't put away on top of that and then she took my big round mirror off the wall and put that on top of this big pile and finally she had drawn a picture of a pig on the center of white paper with the word PIG! in the center of the pig!

I was mortified. She never once yelled. And I... kept my room clean until the day I left to get married when I was 20!

Interesting post! I would never have thought of that. Your cousins were lucky to have the benefit of your wisdom and I am sure they will remember their time with you with fondness. :)

55 cousins?! Wow...what a blessing. :)

Isle Dance said...

So true. Well said. Another helpful factor: How many years has one spent away from their family? Then come back with a new perspective? It can lead to a very clear view of things. And be shocking, really, to see how much shaming is still going on. But it tells you whom is seeing what. Which is very helpful, indeed.

therapydoc said...

These are great comments. I'm hearing your comments are better than my posts and I think it's true.

Anonymous said...

My first instinct was "my parents didn't use shame on me growing up." Then I thought about it, and really, my mother is all about shame, even if I know she doesn't realize it. It's the put-downs and snide comments which take the self-esteem down a notch, or the comments like "you have such an unhealthy diet" (when I didn't). Maybe not the classic version of shame, but I think the effect came out just the same, since I did have low self esteem in high school and still fight with it off and on (though I'm much more confident and self-composed now).

Annie said...

theradoc- Thought provoking post, especially regarding shame. What do you think about using the word guilt vs shame? What i understand is that guilt is potentially less hurtful. To help a child take responsibility for their behavior is guilt. To use a message with shame adds layers of meanings. If the intent in giving feedback is to help the child learn to correct their behavior, what is the goal of using shame?

therapydoc said...

I think it's learned, not terribly conscious parenting, or not well thought out.

Anonymous said...

This week a client commented on dialogue by stating, "you get out what you put in." That is, if you're agressive and obnoxious toward someone, they will probably mirror you in their response. That's how thing get escalated. I wonder if her observation applies to shame. How much of parents' use of shame comes from feeling shamed themselves?

therapydoc said...

You've got it, Blue Jeans, although things are never 100%, maybe not even 85%. But that's what is called a transgenerational pattern, and it's what a family therapist looks for in an assessment. Genograms help.

TentCamper said...

I just found your blog...and glad I did. I just posted my first thing about being sexually assaulted and I am trying to work through the shame and other stuff that my mind has twisted up.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I read this. I've been using the indirect funny shame with my kids for years.

"Who cleaned this kitchen? Gordon Ramsay would have to be bleeped if he saw it!"

"In case of a fire, I just want you to know that since there are no clear paths to your bed because of all the junk on the floor, that I'll have to let you burn to a crisp rather than risk breaking my leg trying to save you."

Use this kind of talk with my wife? No way! She had to have come from a direct shaming home because the response is way different.

Just Me said...

Thank you. I think so many people get to the part where they ascertain that there was abuse, listen to what kind of abuse, and then assume that either those who have been abused do not go to therapy, or that they cannot be helped.

I'm far from unaffected by my abusive family, but I also have spent plenty of time learning how to manage anger and other people's reactions more appropriately, along with my own.

I'm always surprised what people assume is impossible for me because of my past, yet what they tend to forget might be an issue.

therapydoc said...

you're at the right campground TentCamper , we tend to obsess about abuse around here, seems it's a problem with no end in sight.

Just- we all need anger mngmt.

and CR, you need an agent.

A Living Nadneyda said...

Beyond shame that originated in the home, there is always that other culprit, the school system. That Guy I Married was subject to teacher after teacher who commented on his "failing to live up to his potential," without ever diagnosing his LD's and truly helping him where he needed it most: with tailored scholastic support, and more importantly, true ego support.

I have way too many friends -- ADD, PDD, dyslexia, you name it -- who also suffered throughout school. They knew they were smart, but their schools were unequipt, or under-resourced, to help them. Their shame was, and remains, damaging and limiting. They learned not to expect much of themselves, and not to let others have expectations of them. The self-fulfilling prophecy lives on. Shame on all of us.


Anonymous said...

Have you seen the book on this topic by Brene Brown, a PhD social worker type? She says it's all around us and that the problem is not that it happens but that we are not allowed to talk about it when it happens. We (as a society) can now talk about anger management and overcoming our fears, but how many people share with others the shaming things that happen to them?

Channel surfing the other night I saw a perfect example: American Idol Rewind (I don't watch the show, but I stopped surfing because this caught my attention). A young high school girl (18 years old) made it to the finals (last 6 people) and was then eliminated after being continually brutalized by the judges, especially Simon Cowell. Four years later, they interviewed her about her experience on the show. She talked about how it took several years before she had recovered from the shame -- the belittling, the mocking, the humiliation -- and was able to sing again. Can you imagine -- someone with that much talent (she made to the final 6!)being told on national television that she shouldn't sing?

Brown's book talks about Shame Resilience -- and it seems that while a family history of shaming is important to know about, you can also learn a lot about how a person deals with shaming.

The book is "I Thought It Was Just Me" -- if you're interested in this topic, it's definitely worth checking out on amazon...

therapydoc said...

ALN, thanks for bringing this up. You're totally right.

And sure, I recommend that book, Estee. Shame is a big deal in therapy.

shrink on the couch said...

You have just set the bar for the olympics of "getting to know you!" Excellent line of questioning, shame. Certainly during the deciding stages of a relationship, its the perfect time to delve into pointed, emotional, "tell me how you were raised" questions. But how to extricate when unhappy answers are heard? How to avoid rescuing? Go see a good therapist, no?

Anonymous said...

When I was studying psychology, I was taught that shame is bad, but a bit o' guilt is good. Shame is feeling bad about oneself, while good is feeling about about what one has done.

Do you think this distinction is a valid one to make?

Melissa said...

I had a Buddhist therapist who said more than once, "Guilt is a false emotion, remorse is a real emotion." I guess it's all in the definitions.

What he was talking about was people who say (me,I guess, at the time), "Oh, I feel so guilty about (doing whatever)." His problem with that is that people use expressions and feelings of guilt to "pay" for misdeeds. If they feel "guilty" enough, then they somehow cancel out the bad stuff. But of course they don't really. And since then I've noticed people who do this very thing--and just keep going through the same action/guilt cycle without ever changing anything.

Genuine remorse (shame?) leads one to make changes, and to give real apologies to the injured party (maybe yourself).

This may be why I have a weird attitude about apologies. If I can see or sense that someone is sorry, I don't care whether they apologize or not. And if I can see that they're NOT really sorry, they just want to pour some kind of social lubrication on the situation, then no apology is going to make any difference with me.

I try not to assume that anybody else feels that way, though. I do have a tendency not to apologize for things I'm not really sorry for, though, and this gets me into trouble with my husband. :-P

Anonymous said...

You struck a nerve here, Doc. So I wasn't just over-reacting to a 'normal upbringing'! (flatland hillbillies can be harsh. Lucky me, I no longer want to...get even with anyone;-)

Seriously though, this is a very important subject (understating the obvious? I have a gift?), very pertinent to me because I now have grandkids 8, 9, & 11; sensitive times, as I recall, in terms of parental 'handling'.

Thanks for bringing this up. Really.

And thanks for the Yiddish lesson. 'Shlumph' does add something to the concept. Plus, if I have to use it, there'll be the element of humor (explaining to the goyim; "What'd you call me?!" would be a genuine question, instead of a reaction to the insult implied by 'slob.';-)

Anonymous said...

My advice to people is to find out how someone deals with a crisis before commiting to marrying them.

therapydoc said...

Right, the What do you do when you get angry, frustrated, etc., question. Thanks Janette.

A Living Nadneyda said...

Maybe that's what the Talmus means by "kiso, ka'aso, v'koso" (i.e. a woman should see her future spouse's spending behavior, angry behavior, and drunken behavior.

(And I would add to that, in conditions of extreme sleep deprivation, 'cause after the kids start coming, that's pretty much your regular state of being for the next few years).

Rebecca said...



What is pink? A rose is pink

By the fountain's brink.


What is red? A poppy's red

In its barley bed.


What is blue? The sky is blue

Where the clouds float thro'.


What is white? A swan is white

Sailing in the light.


What is yellow? Pears are yellow,

Rich and ripe and mellow.


What is green? The grass is green,

With small flowers between.


What is violet? Clouds are violet

In the summer twilight.


What is orange? Why, an orange,

Just an orange!

---------- by maple story account

Better Things-- Seeing Ghosts