With a paintbrush gripped by my little inexperienced fingers, I’ll never forget the way his voice drove the chills over my skin in unrelenting waves. I froze like prey before a victorious predator, time stood still, my heart exploded out of my chest. I was barely breathing.
Pointing an accusatory finger at me with furious grimace, he bellowed, “What is wrong with you? Get out of my sight and clean yourself up! Don’t even think of coming back unless it’s gone!” As I gazed around the ancient stone-built room in stunned silence, my classmates stood before me staring, barely attempting to conceal their smirks, and pointing as a snickers and snorts of laughter erupted around me.
I must have been about 3 ½ years old when I had my first shaming experience at school. As one of my earliest recollections of childhood, it was a memory that had a huge influence on the way I showed up in my formative years.
Born in France, I attended a tiny two-room school house that catered to children preschool to high-school age, within the stone walls of the little village in which I resided with my family. The headmaster happened to be my classroom teacher; he was not what you’d call a kind man. Shaming and ridicule were often tools he employed to ensure that we complied and remained obedient.
Lost in my thoughts and in the process of creativity, I had been earnestly creating a masterpiece that day. Delighted at the opportunity for creative expression, I had been so wrapped in the pure joy of mixing the colours that I hadn’t even noticed the dollop of bright blue paint that had found its way onto the front of my stark white blouse.
Quick to call attention to anyone falling outside the tight confines of acceptable conduct, one of the older boys had raced excitedly to point out my faux pas to our militant leader.
The dull green walls in the bathroom closed in on me, as I scrubbed furiously to rid the blouse of the stain. Shame sat in my belly, a heavy lump weighing me down as I finally ambled back to the classroom with a crushed spirit, the lower-half of my shirt a sopping mess. Thank goodness the day is almost over, I remember thinking to myself.
When my parents came to pick me up that day, hordes of children ran alongside me, eagerly anticipating the joy of reminding me, once again, how I had failed that day.
We are all neurobiologically hardwired for belonging. When we become the outcast, when we get called out for doing something the wrong way, or when we find ourselves at a crossroads between standing within our integrity versus trying to fit in, it feels like death. So, we spend most of our lives trying to reduce any possibility of finding ourselves alone and exposed. In my case, striving for perfection has been a cross to bear for most of my life. Striving for perfection felt like the promise of protection-the guarantee that I would never experience being the outcast again.
But, the paradox of perfectionism is that it fundamentally separates us from others. Striving for perfection draws us away from true belonging, the ability to be who we are without apology. The ability to stand within our integrity. The ability to say, “this is who I am.”
It turns out that evolutionarily, when we do find ourselves standing alone, the reward circuitry in our brain screams at us to smarten up and find our way back to the tribe. To fit in at all costs.
This mechanism was once very useful to us, because not belonging to our tribe would quite rightly result in death. In the caveman days, being an outcast meant you no longer had the protection of the tribe. The chances of you dying were actually pretty high.
Even though the drive to fit in doesn’t truly serve us any longer, it’s still a very real part of our fight, flight, or freeze response. As parents, educators, and employers, we owe it to one another to respond compassionately in light of mistakes.