In the therapy world, our ears become attuned to our own distinct language, one that we sometimes forget is our own. We throw around terminology like “transgenerational trauma” and “stress mechanisms” and forget that the rest of the world doesn’t routinely speak that way. We insulate ourselves with these terms, and tend to understand one another from the lens that is therapy-speak.
As a result, we sometimes also become hyper-sensitive to the rough-and-tumble language of the general public, the gruff verbiage that is thrown around all around us. The language of 2019 American zeitgeist is shame-laden, and unapologetically so. It’s everywhere, it’s getting worse, and, to the sensitive ears of this therapist, it’s an unhealthy mess.
At brunch the other week, I overheard (read: eavesdropped on) a conversation between a college student and his father, who were seated behind me. The kid was explaining, in a sheepish tone, that he wanted to quit a part-time job in order to keep his grades up, which had been slipping. This was due, at least in part, to the fact that apparently he worked not just one but three jobs in order to support himself while in school. The student sounded insecure and unsure of himself: “I keep getting sick and I’m getting a C; I don’t know if I should try to keep it up or…?”. It was heartbreaking to hear.
His father listened attentively, and took a bite of pancakes. He then responded with…I’m serious here…”Waaaaah! Waaaah! Call a wambulance!” (Ok, so, real quick – do people actually say this? Is this a thing? Do they not recognize how unbelievably dorky this sounds?). Dad then explained how he had worked to get himself through school, and how it had sucked and been awful for him, and that naturally his son needed to “suck it up” and do the same thing. The kid stopped talking after that, and instead became very intent on eating his eggs.
Guys, I hate “suck it up.” I hate “snowflake” and “you’re just too sensitive” and “just deal with it.” I definitely hate the “wambulance.” What is going on that we feel the need to be so hard on ourselves, and on each other?
Using Shaming Language as a Motivational Tool
In the therapy room, clients often cite bullying themselves as a technique they use to inspire motivation. Like this: “I really want to go to the gym every day, so I need to remind myself to get my butt in gear, stop being such a wimp, and just do it. Stop crying about it. Other people can do it, so why can’t I?”. And so on.
Here’s the problem with this: We may think that all this sucking up is going to amount to increased motivation and performance, but we’re wrong. As I’ve said before, shame is not a good motivator for change. In fact, the use of shaming language is often a catalyst for change in the opposite direction – that is, creating the exact result that we so sorely wanted to avoid in the first place. When working with individuals with anxiety and panic, I see this frequently: a decrease in symptoms of panic when the individual is kind, compassionate, and patient with themselves and their experience of anxiety, and escalating symptoms of panic when the individual bullies themselves, or is made fun of by others, or has their experience of anxiety diminished or dismissed by some snooty bystander (or friend, or parent, as the case may be). If we are truly concerned with motivating one another, we’d do well to start by extending a bit of understanding and acceptance – those gifts, in my experience, are the best catalysts to real and lasting change.
Using Shaming Language Because We Don’t Know How Else to Fix the Problem
I think people sometimes use shaming language when they don’t know how else to help. After all, helplessness is a very uncomfortable feeling, especially for a parent. Perhaps this is true in my brunch example: Maybe wambulance dad didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t pay for his son’s tuition, and felt powerless to help him. Maybe he felt panicked because he didn’t want his son to drop out of school. Maybe he views anxiety as a weakness, and fears for his son’s future if he isn’t “strong.” Maybe he just didn’t have any other tools, and didn’t know how else to respond.
What if dad had problem-solved with his kid instead? What if he’d said, “It sounds like you’re having a difficult time staying healthy, keeping your grades up, and working so much. You are doing alot, and I’m proud of you. Let’s see if we can come up with another solution here.” Perhaps the kids still would have kept all of his jobs after talking it through. Maybe he would have figured out how to earn more at a different job so he only needed to work one. Regardless, I believe he would have left the conversation feeling heard and validated, and far less stressed. I’m also certain he would have been likely to reach out to his dad for help again in the future, as opposed to never again, which I’m guessing is the likely outcome of the wambulance conversation.
Using Shaming Language Because We Want to Share Our Pain
It’s always fascinating to me when I hear adults describe their own historical experiences, label them as horrible, and then gleefully hoist the same experiences onto the next generation, ie the classic: “I walked ten miles to school in the snow and got pneumonia, so you should, too!”. Um, this generation doesn’t have to walk in the snow. They’ve got fancy schmancy buses now. And…isn’t not having to walk to school in the snow, and not getting pneumonia…a good thing?
I’m starting to hear this kind of language used among people of my generation as I move into my forties – bitterness about our own experiences of struggle, about achievements we haven’t reached but wanted, curated into snide remarks about the ease and naivete of young people these days. I think we lament that others may have it easier than we did because we don’t want to be alone in our misery; we want to spread our pain around. I don’t fault anyone for this – pain is hard to sit with. But perhaps we can aspire to something better than that – an appreciation that our pain has been contained, that we as humans are evolving and trying to create something better for one another. I hope so.
My heart goes out to the kid having brunch with his dad. I hope he has great friends that can offer him support and love as he figures out how to meet the demands of his current life situation. I hope he comes up with a viable solution to his problem and stops getting ill because he is stretching himself so thin.
My heart goes out to wambulance dad, too. I hope he can find some piece of self-compassion inside of himself to heal his shame. I hope that he can learn new ways of supporting his son. I hope that, someday, he can extend compassion and understanding out to those around him, and speak from a place of confidence and strength and love.