The Shame Game

Last year, a preteen I worked with told me about a child in her class who began cutting herself. The classmate showed this child the  scars but swore her to secrecy.

We discussed the kinds of secrets that one should not keep (the ones that feel ‘too big’ to keep, or are about someone being hurt, or feel wrong to keep, or come from shame or guilt), who to tell (a parent, a teacher, a trusted adult, even the school nurse), and how. The girl was relieved to know that she did not have to keep this scary secret (“I get worried that maybe she’ll like, bleed to death or something and then she’ll die and it will be my fault for not telling anyone …”).

In our conversation, the reasons children self-harm also came up: to deal with difficult feelings, to express pain they don’t know how to verbalize, to feel alive, to feel numb, to ‘try and see how it feels’, to be noticed … And what to do if she ever felt the urge to hurt herself (thankfully, she said she never did feel that way, but it never hurts to give some options just in case …).

Relieved though this girl was to know she could share this secret with someone, the preteen was also worried that it will somehow become known to the other children and how it will make things worse. “Kids are already like, making fun of her for everything …” she fretted, “so, if they found out she’s like, cutting … they’d be all like, joking about it and texting and stuff ….”

Apparently the self-harming classmate–not the most attractive by other students’ standards (directly derived from society’s harsh shaming of anyone who does not adhere to a very narrow range of ‘acceptable’) was found to have confessed a crush on a boy in a higher grade … Someone found the note where it had fallen from the girl’s pocket, ‘kindly’ photographed it, and circulated it in among the students, along with some choice words about the girl’s morality (you can insert your own words here, copied from the shaming terminology of grownups toward women and girls: ugly hurtful words that are meant to cut to the core). A cascade of comments and ugliness ensued, along with catcalls, leering, and whispered words.

“Some kids even say that she’s like, you know … the ‘c’ word …”, the girl blushed in embarrassment and indignation. “She didn’t even kiss him or anything …” she said, then added urgently, “not that it would even be okay if she did let him kiss her … or, you know, stuff …”

The “if she did let him” did not escape me … nor did the outright meanness of exposing vulnerability and turning it onto some way to cause harm. The backbone of bullying.

Bullying is a very real issue, and not only in children and teens. The culture of putting down others for real or perceived differences and flaws is disturbing, and for those caught in it, it is often shattering. Bullying thrives on shaming, and shaming reflects a void of compassion and empathy. It is especially apparent on websites, news media, twitter, Facebook, and many online blogs: people behaves in ways that are purposely hurtful, narrow minded, and outright cruel; and it is somehow seen as witty and cool.

It is not cool.

It is not witty.

It is cowardly and it is heartless.

It is, really, a form of terror. Insidious and sneaky, but no less meant to cause helplessness and pain.

The truth is that bullying is not ‘fun’ or ‘funny.’ Cruelty of words is especially cowardly, and cyber-bullying is uniquely hurtful in that it can easily seem like the whole world is (and indeed can be) laughing at one’s misery. Many would cringe at the sight of someone literally cutting another person or kicking them in the groin, yet somehow cyber-bullying has become a culturally accepted means of expressing disdain and showcasing ignorance. Meanness is not frowned upon, but adopted and propagated. It should not be so. It can and must be stopped.

Some of the things people (children, but not only children) write:

“Why don’t you just kill yourself so we can be rid of you?”

“You are so ugly that you shouldn’t have been born.”

“Everyone hates you. Just go jump from a bridge or something.”

How have we let it come to that?

The conversation I had with the preteen was not unique–bullying often occupies children’s conversations. However, I was reminded of the one I had with this particular preteen as I watched Monica Lewinsky break her silence and deliver an outstandingly candid and important speech–her first public talk in 16 years. Lewinsky calls out the shame culture that allowed (and cultivated) the ugliness toward her in the late 90s, and which is all too alive and well today and still takes lives–figuratively or literally.

Monica Lewinsky survived it, but not without immense cost, and she would not have survived it had it not been for the compassion and empathy of family and friends who held her close through the awfulness.

Not everyone has people to hold them through bullying, and not everyone survives it. Even in those who do, the price is often very high.

Watch this video, and pass it along. It is important. It is worth the time.

Because the Shame Game can only be played if we perpetuate and feed it, and it will cease if enough of us practice compassion and empathy. Like the preteen who turned to me, and would not be a silent witness to pain or bullying, let us all become ambassadors for compassion and ending shaming.

Let there be no more casualties of shame, no more shattering of souls. Let us not be instruments of despair–directly or by our silence.