The Damage of Shaming Others
By Carolyn Lueders Burica
Whenever I need a quick pick-me-up, I head over to http://www.dogshaming.com to look at the humorous pictures of dogs caught in shameful situations. Being a dog owner myself, I can relate to a lot of the pictures. Nothing says “I’m a beagle, I had to do it” better than a picture of one in a near coma from having eaten an entire ham — while the remaining evidence is still on the dinner table, resting in the background. I’ve been there. I just wasn’t able to catch Lilly in the act. She’s sneaky that way.
But, fortunately for dogs, their short-attention spans and the apparent lack of a guilty conscience keeps them from feeling shame for any longer than, say, the time it takes them to lift their hanging heads and look at you with liquid pools of love as if to say, “I wuvs you, mommy. You wuvs me too?” I fall for this every time.
However, with humans, shame comes with a much heftier price — which can last long after the shameful incident has occurred. And that’s what this post is about.
When I was nineteen, I got pregnant. I was unmarried, a freshman in college, and completely terrified. I had been raised in the Catholic church, so I was expected to be the “perfect little Catholic girl” and remain virginal until my wedding day. I was also never given the “big talk” by my mom, because her generation of mothers “didn’t talk about sex”. At least not to me anyways.
Needless to say, the boy I lost my virginity to was the same boy who helped me get pregnant. So much for remaining abstinent. It’s also important to add here that, unlike some of my older siblings, I never went to Catholic school as a kid. Unlike Catholic school sex education (which, by the way is woefully inadequate and borders on ridiculous — I know, I had to teach it), I did get the full course of ‘This is where babies come from and here’s how not to let that happen to you.” I wasn’t completely in the dark about sex. I just grew up hearing “Abstinence and natural planning is the only acceptable practice for Catholics. Birth control is WRONG.” over and over again.
When I officially found out I was pregnant, I knew three things right away: 1) abortion was out of the question, 2) I am not prepared financially or emotionally to raise this child and 3) the child deserves a stable home with a mother and a father, and that wasn’t something I could give him. (it was a boy). I ended up surrendering my son for adoption.
However, despite knowing that I handled my mistake the best way I could at the time, I have recently come to realize how horribly mishandled I was during this time by my parents–more so by my mom than my dad. I cannot blame my mom for what she did and how she treated me – she was only going on the doctrine of the Catholic church and how it feels about birth control (absolutely NOT), abortion (eternal damnation if you so much as even think about it) and pre-marital sex (yet another sin so evil *insert eye roll and heavy sarcasm here* if any teacher in any diocese is caught having it they will immediately lose their job).
My mom was horrified of the shame I had brought on to her, the family and, most importantly it seemed, the Catholic church. I felt like the “spiritually soiled girl,” destined for eternal damnation. I was certain I could never get married wearing the white dress, or take communion without confession first (another thing she wanted me to do), and all the other forms of penance and emotional flogging I had to do in order to get back in “God’s good graces.”
In an effort to keep the family safe from my obvious disgrace, I was sent off to live with a woman I didn’t know until the baby was born and I could come home again and resume my life as an “unblemished, pure Catholic girl.” I, however, had to continue on with my life as if I had no worries or stressors on me. Instead of much-needed counseling, I was told to go back to “leading as normal a life as possible.” And forget about everything I just went through. And, by the way, remain silent about it for the rest of my life.
I enrolled at a community college, bought a cheap gold band to wear as a wedding ring for my non-existent husband who was in active duty in the Marines (part of the growing series of lies I had to tell everyone so as not to blow the cover off my family’s shame). Lie upon lie was told to friends of the family: she went to live in California, to live with her big brother and attend college out there because it’s free– was the mega lie my mom told her teacher friends.
The guilt and shame were poured on thick. My mom laid the ultimate guilt trip on me when she insisted I not tell my older sisters I was pregnant — because, according to her Catholic point of view–my non-Catholic sisters would just judge and berate me and call me horribly irresponsible. The irony is startling.
Incidentally, I never did tell either of them until recently — 30+ years after this all happened. And, unlike what I had been told and feared would happen, neither one of them cast a single stone of judgment in my direction. In fact, both admitted they were saddened to hear that I “couldn’t come to them freely” with this news. They were angry at my mom, though, for letting her Catholicism plant false ideas into my head. Again, that good ol’ Catholic guilt was at work.
Once the baby was born and adopted out, I was told “Okay, that’s over. Time to move on with your life. We’ll never speak of this again. Promise?” Sadly, after all of this trauma and what can only be called “emotional abuse,” I agreed.
It took ten years before I could even talk about the incident to anyone. I was afraid of being shamed and judged all over again. It took the death of both of my parents to allow myself the opportunity to grieve over the loss. It took the help of a great therapist to help me recognize and process the enormous, near-crippling shame I have been feeling since that day in the doctor’s office almost thirty-one years ago. It will take courage, strength and confidence to forgive myself for allowing it to happen in the first place. That’s the hardest part.
Now for the “lesson learned” in all of this. And I hope this message reaches as many religious folks as possible who have found themselves on the precipice of their child’s poor choice(s).
Never, ever shame your child for their mistakes.
Yes, you can tell them you are disappointed, angry, upset, or whatever adjective seems to fit your mood. But, how you treat them after you share your feelings can and will have lifelong effects. Kick them out because they’re gay and it goes against your religion? Devastating. Kick them out because she got pregnant and it goes against your religion? Devastating. Telling them they are destined for hell because they made a single, poor choice that doesn’t align with your beliefs? ABSOLUTELY, 100% DEVASTATING.
It has taken me thirty-one years to deal with the emotional abuse that has permeated my life and has caused many problems for me. I feel if my situation had been handled without the religious judgment and condemnation but instead with more love, patience and compassion, I would be even better than I am today.
If you wish to shame someone, then try shaming a dog. They don’t seem to care enough about your opinion to suffer any permanent effects.