The Dynamics of Shame

the word "shame" in scrabble tiles on a red background

This is the story of a schoolyard bully, a conspiracy led by mom, and the dynamics of shame that can get stuck in the body.

Growing up in the 60s, we had a neighbour who lived across the street. He was a year younger than me, in my brother’s class at school.

And he was a bully. Over the years the incidents were countless.

I remember the bully raking his fingernails down my cousin’s face when she came to visit as we were playing together outside. Funny enough, when I asked her about it, she doesn’t remember a thing.

I remember him crossing the schoolyard to kick me in the shin so hard that I couldn’t walk, couldn’t control my sobbing, all because I’d complimented him on his beautiful new desert boots.

I felt shame that wasn’t mine, and when the teacher on yard duty hauled us by the arms into the principal’s office to have him deal with us. I refused to acknowledge the facts – that I had done nothing to deserve the kick, except stand in the schoolyard during recess enjoying the warmth of the late spring sun radiating off the brick wall.

I defended him. Said it was an accident. That nothing really happened, and could I just go back to class now?

The bully? He just kept wheedling that he hadn’t done anything wrong.

I just needed to hide, to retreat in fear that my name had been placed in “the book”

(What the hell was the book anyway? The fear of having your name in “the book” was real back then. Did all schools have “the book”?)

I returned home after school that day and could not face my family for the shame, going straight to my room until dinner and returning there afterwards until bedtime.

On the third day of this self-imposed punishment, my mother came to my room, sat down on the bed beside me to talk.

The bully’s mom had called my mom to let her know that her son was upset because of something that had happened in school a couple of days ago, and that I was involved. Of course, he had given her no details.

Witness the dynamics of shame.

Still I defended him, denied he’d done anything wrong, insisted it was an accident. I don’t remember if I ever set the record straight with my mom, though I doubt the incident left as big a mark on her memory as it did mine.

(And yes, she asked me if I got my name in “the book” – it wasn’t just a kid thing)

In any case, one day my mom, frustrated at hearing our complaints and pleas about the bully’s behaviour (and apparently lacking any other viable options for resolution) took a conspiratorial tone and set a plan in motion.

The next time the bully lashed out at us, she instructed me to pin him down while my younger brother beat him up.

The war to create peace approach….

Of course, as young children, this was viewed as free license to stand at the end of our driveway, taunting the bully from across the street until his rage reached the tipping point and he stomped over to deal with us.

What can I say? I’m a lover, not a fighter. The mechanics of war do not come easily to me.

Also, I’m slightly dyslexic and its effects are amplified under stress.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s what happened: In the heat of the moment, I got flustered and I pinned my brother down instead of the bully.

My brother fought me valiantly, but I managed to keep him down.

I’ve always been physically strong, though I grew tired of doing all the holding while the bully was not getting his due.

In actuality, the bully was wailing on my brother with me complicit.

I can still see the righteous look of unfettered rage and frustration on my brother’s face when he muttered through gritted teeth: “You’re supposed to be holding HIM down, not ME!”

And in that moment, the jig was up.

The bully’s rage spell was broken on hearing those words, the unmistakable realization that he’d been lured into a trap gradually dawning on him. The rage left his body. He sagged a little, started sobbing and ran back home.

My brother and I retreated to our own house to play in the basement, silently steaming at each other over the failed coup. We didn’t bother to bring our mom up to speed on what had happened.

We heard the bully’s mom come to the back door, and the low tone she and my mom took in speaking to each other. We managed to eavesdrop and hear my mom claiming not to know what could have gotten into us and assuring her neighbour that she’d address it.

And address it she did. We creeped up the stairs to the kitchen after the neighbour left. Mom looked at us with a smile and a nod and a twinkle in her eye and said, “Good job.”

I felt there was no need to go full debrief on the incident and describe my abject failure in executing the plan. The end result was the same either way, right?

The bully got the message that his behaviour would not be tolerated. I like to think it was the beginning of a détente.

These memories bubbled up during one of my training modules for advanced coach training in trauma resolution. The instructor, Racheal Maddox, was speaking about the dynamics of shame, and how we are conditioned to take on shame that isn’t our own when traumatic events happen.

When we experience violation of some sort, shame causes us to retreat and hide and convince ourselves that we’re bad, that what happened was our own fault, how shame is a result of trauma in the social nervous system, and how shameful behaviour is more often than not the result of feelings of shame carried by the perpetrator.

I had forgotten about the schoolyard kick in the shin until then.

I also remembered a day before that, when the bully ran crying home from the schoolyard a block away because someone had bullied him. His father’s response was to place a stick of wood in his hands and urge him to go back to the schoolyard to beat the kid up with it. He followed down the street, yelling ‘encouragement’ while, obviously distressed, tears streamed down his son’s face.

Thankfully, our neighbour who lived at the next corner, intervened and the bully and his father returned home, rage deflated by shame.

I recognize that the bully and his father were raised by a system that values toxic and hyper masculinity. I can imagine they both felt trapped by that.

I realize that as a child, I felt the bully’s shame, the shame he was unable to express because it was too big, that allowed him to do something really shitty to me while defending his behaviour. Prickly defensiveness on the outside and the frozen heart inside.

“The traumatic event is in the past but if it’s not allowed to complete and release in safety it gets stuck in our bodies and nervous systems and affects the way we navigate the present.” Rachael Maddox

The memories and emotions around these incidents bubbled up freely because I’ve tilled the healing soil for stuck feelings to move and ‘complete’. My body feels safe and resourced enough to let them flow and let them go.

I hope that sometime in the past fifty or so years the bully and his family have been able to find some healing from the intergenerational trauma caused by toxic masculinity.

And I wonder if my brother has forgiven me yet.

I am a trauma-informed somatic coach who helps people tap into the wisdom of their bodies so they can heal and thrive.
More information here.

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