I was invited to a conference on Behavioral Health and Addictive Disorders. I went to hear Harriet Lerner, Psychotherapist and Author of ten books. She was going to be speaking from one of her books, The Dance of Fear. This is about dealing with fear and anxiety. Her talk was called The Secret Life of Shame.
Now I have made it very clear that sport psychology rarely deals with these types of issues. I write this only from the standpoint of working with people with major issues. It is not that as human beings involved in sports we are exempt from these issues, it is just that I work with generally healthy individuals that may need to understand how something like anxiety affects their performance, but for the most part they can get out of bed each morning and function in society.
I was interested because I am increasingly becoming more aware of the role shame plays in sports performance. In all my years I have never heard this topic addressed in sports. We talk about fear, anxiety and even guilt, but never shame. It got me thinking about what I have been seeing in the youth sport arena. It seems to me what we have been labeling as fear or even embarrassment may in fact be shame. If this is true then we need to approach this much differently because shame is something we just won’t talk about. Instead we bury it deep inside us and try hard to forget about it, but it does leave its scars.
I was at a youth tournament this week. I had met a man who had played a major sport for a major college. He was talking up his daughter. Telling me how good she was and that I should come watch one of her games. I said I would try. I got to her match late and only caught the end. Her team was let’s say; under-performing. Translation- they were getting their butts kicked. I noticed almost immediately that the father was not watching his daughter or really the team. His focus was on the other team. He would not look at his child. He was focused on not watching her. I thought at the moment that he was embarrassed. He was ashamed of her and her team. This was clearly evident. Watching their interaction after the game confirmed my feelings even from afar. The daughter, with her head down, picks up on how she had disappointed her father, by her performance.
Shame is not as I said a common topic in sport psychology. Mostly we focus on dealing with and coping with anxiety of a poor performance. Issues involving shame are much more below the surface. Shame isolates us says Lerner. We can join together with teammates or family to cope with anxiety, fear anger and guilt, but with shame we stand alone. It is the nature of shame. *Please read on to understand more about this topic we just don’t talk about.
We can tell stories about ourselves where we have been embarrassed by our own mistakes and failures. People do it all of the time. We even make party games out of it. But tell someone the deep dark shame in your life, not a chance. It is shame that eats us up in the darkness of the night. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to this social emotion.
The parent I had met had been a major college player. He played on some really good teams. He was projecting his feeling on his child. Her failure was his failure. He was ashamed to have raised someone who could not perform. The last part of the game was reflective of what I saw. She was in for one of the last plays and just went through the motions. She saw her father’s shame. She didn’t match his expectations. I am very sure that this man loves his daughter, likely without any reservations. Yet the message was not unconditional love that was delivered that day. We need to live our lives within ourselves. Our self-worth should be measured by our deeds without comparing ourselves to others or by needing the approval of others. So much of what we do is grounded in what we have learned in our early life. If we are taught shame, we isolate ourselves and our issues. We cannot openly talk about those things we are ashamed of. So if we enter my world of sport and we observe athletes held up by their anxiety and as we lift the veil and help them cope with their sports anxieties and still something is missing, we may need to understand their greatest fear. I often ask the question, “What is your greatest fear?” Maybe it is the wrong question. What is it that makes you feel shame? Can you talk about it? We tell people not to put their self-worth in a sport outcome or result. What if they do that because somewhere along the way, instead of finding joy in sports, they found shame?