An open hand, an open heart
There’s no need to be afraid
Open up this is a raid
I wanna get it through to you
You’re not alone

This week’s theme is mercy, mystically provided by the Sisters of Mercy, where I spent four days this week workshopping (is that even a word?) on restorative practices. Restorative practices are built on the theory that “people are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.”

As an educator, and as a human,  I have been very interested in this movement because I feel, to the very last nerve in my body, that traditional discipline doesn’t change behavior. Getting to the root of the issues through respect, dialogue, and “walking with” someone does.  Of course, that is me in my best mind/heart. I have found myself backsliding into familiar ground from my own childhood, in particular falling into punitive practices when I couldn’t get “control” over someone else.  Isn’t it about power?

I have felt deep shame in the past about this, at the incongruence of my heart (beliefs) and hands (actions) in times of crisis. I never meant to say that. I never meant to do that. I think many people, whether they experienced abuse or trauma or not, can relate.

Maybe it’s why the therapists’ offices and confessionals are full. We want to confess our “sins” but keep silent once we leave these boxes.  There are people, all over, in crisis with not even a box to confess in. Or, on the receiving end, there are those who suffer in silence and cannot release the anger, hurt, trauma because their voices haven’t been truly heard.

In my experience, few rooms in our lives can hold the space long enough for folks to heal. It’s just too much.

It’s easier to judge and move on, I’m afraid, than to seek to understand and restore. I admit it. It relieves me of that helpless feeling I have to change other people’s lives. Sometimes it’s more simple. I want to be right, have the answers.

Because, if I am busy educating you about how to live, you won’t look at what I’m doing and call me on my shit. Dang. As Anne Lamott would say, I guess I have the “disease of Good Ideas for Other People.”  Gah!

So, I arrived in Burlingame on Monday eager to learn about repairing harm in our school community. I need to confess at this point that I thought I was already practicing restorative justice. Seriously.  But even more deeply I wanted to be armed with knowledge so I could come back and “educate” my staff and whoever felt needed it.  Carrying my Disease of Good Ideas for Other People. Duh.

Of course, it was me who got an education.

affect theory and shame. 

 On the first day, we learned that restorative practices are based on  Tomkins’ affect theory, which, in my crappy paraphrasing, is the biological responses, known as affect, that humans attach meaning to. In his theory, there are only two positive affects (enjoyment-joy and interest-excitement), one neutral (surprise-startle), and six negative (fear-terrordistress-anguishanger-rage,shame-humiliationdisgust, and dissmell).  As humans we seek to maximize positive affect and minimize negative affect. It’s just that simple. People want to feel good.

Sweet. I got this.

Then we focused in on shame.  Tomkins defined as “any interruption to positive affect.”  Wow, ok. When I saw Brene Brown’s famous TED talk on vulnerability, I understood shame as a painful feeling connected with a person feeling he/she is unworthy of love and belonging.  Tomkins’ definition seems to explain the biological response, and Brown’s definition explains the feelings that come with it, along with the why. When we are in enjoyment-joy or interest-excitement, we are expressing our fullness of being. We are totally connected.  We are not thinking or feeling unworthy in these moments.

Shame is that disconnection from our good feelings, our positive sense of being and belonging. Our feeling of connection. It’s like the valve gets shut off and our bodies don’t know what to do with it. I thought about my feelings of shame around my punitive actions, and I started to understand Tomkins’ theory. I don’t want to feel this because it stops my enjoyment/joy affect in its tracks. I don’t want to be like this.

We moved onto Donald Nathanson’s “compass of shame” – our reactions to shame – which helped explain what our bodies tend to do when our positive affect is interrupted.

compass of shame

In looking at this compass, I saw myself. I have reacted in all of these ways.  Fight or flight, right? As a child of a drug addict, I have never abused drugs, but I have certainly sought “distraction through thrill-seeking”. I have struggled to stop putting myself down. I have blamed others, I have fled.

Wow.  I really am not alone. Apparently, there’s  a whole compass for us.

shame interruption. 

Restorative practices pick up from there. It addresses our deep longing for re-connection. How do we restore the good feeling? The sense of belonging? How do we talk about the affect a conflict has had on an individual or even a whole community? How can we seek to make things right?  The purpose of these practices is to take the confessional box and place it firmly in the community, allowing our shame out into the light so we can make things right with ourselves and the people we affect and/or are affected by. In some cases, there may be traditional “discipline” action for laws broken, etc. but this is deeper. All through real communication.

We practiced the simple questions to formal conferencing, and each time I felt more convinced that I was not just closer to “walking with” students and staff, but also walking with family. Walking with myself.

Maybe compassion and forgiveness are just shame interruption. Through compassion, empathy and forgiveness we can re-open the valve and restore that connection. I am with you. And mercy – kind and compassionate treatment in a case where severity is merited or expected – can stop others, and ourselves, from spinning further out into space, furthering the attack, hurting or distracting ourselves even more than we already do.  We, no I, just needed the language.

some questions for consideration.
To help those affected:
  • What did you think when you realized what had happened?
  • What impact has this incident had on you and others?
  • What has been the hardest thing for you?
  • What do you think needs to happen to make things right?
When challenging behavior:

  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking of at the time?
  • What have you thought about since?
  • Who has been affected by what you have done? In what ways have they been affected?
  • What do you think you need to do to make things right?

One thought on “confession.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *