Kindergarten was difficult for me.
Naps were easy — who doesn’t ace napping? It was the seduction of classmates and misguided attempts at currying favor that landed me in the time-out corner. More than once, as I recall.
I didn’t have a sense of it then, of course, but looking back, that “shame on display” was the one thing I wanted desperately to avoid. It terrified me. There I was, in full view of my friends, my idols, my teacher. An example of what never to do. A delinquent marked with a big, red “A.” Awful.
My nature was (and is) to secure total affirmation from those I meet. It hardly matters what you do or what our relationship is, I need to know you approve of me. Even better, that you think of me as a genuinely good, capable person.
This need becomes more acute with specific people and in specific contexts — my boss at work, my romantic partner, friends in social gatherings, my family, etc. It stands to reason; these people matter very much to me.
The likelihood of being relegated to the corner in shame is minimal among those who know me best, however. It’s with new people that I fear it most. As I introduce myself to strangers and attempt not to stumble over words, to seem idiotic, to reveal the stain on my shirt or the spinach in my teeth, I flash back to kindergarten. To six-year-old Jeff sitting in the corner, classmates whispering and pointing while class carries on. I break into cold sweats.
Is it any wonder I’m terrified of being the unmistakable example of failure — of what not to do and who not to be?
I’m dramatizing this a bit — but not much. Why else do I choose low-stakes social engagements where being a fool is only a small possibility? Why do I avoid competitive activities — games and races and sports? Because I cannot handle the shame of losing — being less-than, unable, dumb. Awful.
I would like to punctuate this with a revelation of some kind. Something like: “I realized, after all of these years, this is why I’m so desperate for approval…”
I can’t. The only thing I can say is that I am aware of the cycle.
I know I am that person who wants so much to be accepted, favored, loved, that I sometimes court indifferent people with less-than-savory motives — people who may land me in the shame corner. I know this is unhealthy, unwise. And I know that I lean on my rule-following tendencies to obviate disaster.
It doesn’t always work, and sometimes, I want approval so much I break the rules. I risk the corner to be loved. When I am in it — the inevitable consequence of giving too much to those who care too little — I want nothing more than to be back in the world’s good graces. When I am released, it’s back to currying favor and seeking approval.
Stephen Fry once wrote positively about this. He said: “Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”
Disappearing is not sustainable, though. Brené Brown advocates for something a little healthier: “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
How can I secure approval and admit to my dirty shame at the same time? The question always knocks: What’s the likelihood this person will listen, will comfort, will help — and will not judge?
To avoid the slight possibility that they will, I handle the shame alone. Slough it off, as best I can. Tuck it under things. Paint over it. Move on with a smile slightly less wide.
For as long as I can, I pretend the shame corner does not exist and I have not been made to wear a big, red “A.”