The Best Gift Parents Can Give Their Children

giftOn this Christmas Day, I believe the best gift parents can give their children is the ability to manage shame. Teaching a child to experience and respond well to the feeling of shame is a life lesson that will affect every relationship and social involvement for your child — a major predictor of and driver of emotional health.

How your child responds to shame will affect the quality of her friendships, the success of her marriages, her career and academic success. And this, in turn, affects her mental health for two reasons, both as cause and effect.

First, we know that close, emotionally connected relationships provide a sense of security and belonging that is essential for emotional health. Bonded relationships are so important, research has found that the physical health of married people is better than that of singles.

Second, an inability to properly manage shame is at the core of nearly all behavioral issues that we now label as “mental disorders.” Anxiety, depression, and personality disorders are all caused by overwhelming, unmanageable feelings of shame. The person does not know how to respond appropriately to feelings of shame and acts them out in two main ways: as anger and blaming/shaming others or as self-shaming. These dysfunctional responses often cause rifts in relationships and even destroy relationships, which affects emotional health.

shame artWe can see shame’s effect on couple relationships quite clearly. Conflicts in couples when one or both members have difficulty managing shame either quickly escalate or the couple mutually and unwittingly decides to avoid conflict.

In the escalation scenario, fights often begin when one partner accuses the other of some fault. (“You forgot to pick up the milk.”) An emotionally secure person can recognize the truth in this statement, calmly accept her forgetfulness and promptly and graciously apologize to repair the problem. A shame-avoidant person is so afraid of being criticized, she will quickly and unthinkingly lash out at her accuser, usually with a return volley of unrelated, often irrational, accusations. (“Yeah, but you didn’t text me until 3 pm and I left work at 5 pm so I didn’t have time to really think about it…”) I call this “zig-zag” arguing. When a person can’t accept blame, she often shifts the topic or blames the partner rather than admit fault.

The partner may then react emotionally to the irrational accusation (which is hard not to do when it is so irrational), and a fight has begun. The accuser then responds with more accusations (“You are so irrational! That makes no sense! You just forgot the milk. Admit it! And you always forget when I tell you things to do. You always ignore me.”) and the shame-filled person again feels she must respond with lashing out because she is afraid of admitting to those feelings of shame. In these type of scenarios, it is easy to see why shame is considered a primary emotion, because it is very often acted out as fear, or a secondary emotion.

Many times in therapy when I try to explore the emotions of couples in this type of fight, they are unable to recognize or admit to the primary emotion of shame. They have never learned to feel or have learned to ignore shame, so they bypass that feeling and go automatically and unthinkingly to responding with fear. This type of emotionally driven response is very unhealthy for relationships. Emotions are wonderful signals, but we should use our cognitive brain to control our responses to them.

Managing feelings of shame takes emotional strength and strength of character. A person must have a strong sense of self-worth and self-acceptance, which speaks of emotional awareness and resilience. She also must have learned how to make good choices and exercise cognitive control; rather than lashing out in anger when shamed, she must understand that she should be accountable for her own behaviors and respond in a pro-social way by apologizing or accepting fault.

So how do parents give the gift of emotional health to their children? By modeling their own ability to gracefully be wrong. Kids watch parents and absorb what they see, especially when learning social skills. Parents must consistently behave in ways that show they can handle shame. They must apologize and accept responsibility when wrong. They must not automatically lash out in anger when confronted. They must show remorse and attempt to mend relationships rather than insist on always being right or having the last word. They must also not avoid conflict as a way to manage uncomfortable feelings.

Shame is a pro-social emotion, as are empathy, compassion, love and kindness. Shame signals us to correct our behaviors so that we can continue to be accepted by others and fit into society. If we are unable to recognize or accept feelings of shame, how can we learn from our mistakes and misbehaviors and adjust so that others find us personally likable? We can’t. The inability to be wrong signals others that we are not good relationship material. Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who is never wrong? That means I am the one who is always wrong, even if the facts don’t support it. Without an ability to feel shame and admit to our own personal faults, we lack the fundamental and essential pro-social skill of personal accountability.

The ability to admit fault, apologize, accept blame and learn from our mistakes is how we repair relationships. Without the ability to do this, relationships will constantly be filled with drama and turmoil, rather than closeness and connection that is essential for our emotional health.

What better gift could a Pack Leader Parent give than the gift of emotional health?

Compliments: Can you give or accept them graciously?


Often in therapy patients speak of being unable to give or accept compliments easily and graciously. As a psychotherapist, rather than treat this as merely a sign of poor social skills, I latch onto it and explore it as a symbol of deeper emotional issues.

People who have difficulty with these tasks often struggle with several related issues.

At a basic level, they have low self-worth, so that at they do not believe a compliment when one is given to them: “I couldn’t possibly be as smart as they say I am.” These Submissive types of people, as I describe them in my book “Pack Leader Psychology,” tend to please and appease in relationships. They don’t want to feel “one-up” or more powerful than others, but instead strive to appear less powerful. Denying compliments or being self-deprecating is one way to do that.

Yet these people also subconsciously dislike this feeling of self-deprecation because they sense that it puts them in a weakened position.

These Submissive people have come to believe that relationships ought be manipulative. Perhaps their early attachments to parents or other caregivers were insecure and conditional. Perhaps these people, as children, had to attend to the emotional needs of their self-absorbed parents. They learned to prop up their parents emotionally, placing their own needs second. This taught them that compliments are false and manipulative — a method some people adopt to manage a relationship to earn approval and acceptance: “I’ll give you this compliment if you then like me or submit to me or don’t hurt me.”

Therefore, giving or accepting a compliment can be felt as a minor form of vulnerability. If a person has learned to be distrustful of relationships, being emotionally open can be a fear-provoking experience: “If I accept a compliment from this person, I’ll be in their emotional debt. That feels unsafe to me, so I’ll demure.”

In my experience, by becoming more self-accepting, a person can naturally become more comfortable with giving the gift of a compliment. A self-accepting person has strong self-worth so that she can disconnect the gift of a compliment from any neediness for approval.

She can freely give and receive compliments without feeling indebted.

A self-accepting person does not fear relationships, so can be fully present in conversations, stating what she is experiencing, and express real feelings. If I experience someone as, say, pleasant and helpful, I will share that with them, knowing that I am giving them a gift that will, likely, improve their day. But I am not doing this in hopes of receiving anything in return. It is a true gift — with no agenda or expectation of anything in return.

To get better at compliments, it often just takes some practice. Start with giving an insignificant compliment to a stranger — praise the waitress for her good service. Then move on to people who are closer to you and try to give a compliment to them regularly. Feel how those experiences resonate with you.

When someone gives you a compliment, merely smile and thank them as sincerely as you can. Don’t brush off the praise. Think of a compliment as a gift — would you take someone’s gift and throw it in the trash in front of them? That’s what you’re doing when you dismiss their praise. This behavior is not likely to strengthen the relationship!

I believe that dismissing compliments also sends a signal to others that you have low self-worth. To Dominators, this is a sign they can take advantage of you and your insecure weakness.

With practice, you can be better at the social art of giving compliments. In the process, you may also start to really hear how others experience you. I find that many people have been told repeatedly about a talent that they have, but they were so busy dismissing these compliments that they never really absorbed what others were saying.

Brushing off compliments also tells people you aren’t comfortable getting them, so they will likely stop. If you want more praise, don’t train people to quit giving it!



Conflict Management Using Assertive Silence

One of the most powerful conflict management tools I learned in my journey to becoming a Pack Leader was to stop talking. I now see silence as a powerful tool in being assertive, although in our verbal society today this may seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t I talk a lot to make my point clear?

As a former Submissive personality, I had been like the yapping dog who barks at every breeze or passing car. Eventually no one takes him seriously. He isn’t a watchdog because his communication has lost value.

It wasn’t that I talked too much, it was I talked too much at the wrong times.

When are the wrong times? During arguments, which is when most people talk a lot! When I argued with my second husband, it was because he was accusing me falsely of cheating on him. I wanted to defend my honor, prove him wrong and clear my record. So I argued and talked incessantly. This proved that I was desperate for his approval and wanted to look good — a weak, unassertive position for a relationship. I should have responded to his accusations with silence and turning on my heel.

I now see this communication pattern in couples and families who come for therapy. Unfortunately all this talking can end up backfiring. This is the usual scenario:  Parent states long list of complaints against child. When the parent stops talking, the child sits silently, stonewalling, avoiding eye contact. (This is using silence in a manipulative, not assertive, way.) So the parent, feeling uncomfortable about the silence and conflict, begins talking again repeating the same list of complaints. Now the child reacts by saying: “This is what she always does — nags nonstop. See how emotional she gets. It’s crazy.” The child has succeeded in changing the topic to her nagging behavior, not the facts of her complaints. The child gets to avoid accountability for his or her behavior and spin the complaints back toward the parent. All because the parent didn’t use assertive silence assertive.

Instead of talking endlessly, the parent should have picked one point, stated it, then sat waiting silently for a response. When the child stonewalled, the parent should have pointed out that this  behavior was inappropriate and an avoidance of accountability, then stopped talking. Her discomfort at the conflict leads her to fill the silence with words, signaling her weakness and lack of assertiveness.

A huge part of being assertive is truly believing in the value of what you have to say, stating it firmly once, then not feeling the need to backfill and re-state to fill the silence.

Good, strong eye contact and body language also help communicate that you mean business, even if you aren’t saying a word.

Of course, Pack Leader dogs use minimal communication, relying on calm, direct body language to communicate their power in the pack. They bark very little and this is definitely a lesson we humans should bring into our relationships.

Self-Esteem and Self-Acceptance…for Redheads and Others

I was pleased to be quoted extensively in this fun article on www.HowToBeARedhead.comredhead_logo_tm-1-copy2.

Lesson: We all may struggle with self-acceptance at times. But basing our self-esteem on the opinions of others leaves us feeling powerless.