Kristin Maher’s “The Awfulizer” Helps Kids Overcome Debilitating Feelings of Shame

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It’s not a problem you hear discussed too often, but it can have an insidious effect on your mind, heart, and soul. Kristin Maher knows this first-hand because she is in therapy to deal with feelings of shame and notes that people aren’t always clear on what exactly it means.

During a recent interview on “Christopher Closeup,” Kristin explained, “There’s a difference between shame and guilt. If you feel guilty about doing something, that means you feel guilty about the action. Whereas, shame is more personal. It’s not that you made a mistake, it’s that [you think], ‘I am a mistake.’ So there’s a big difference because if you feel guilty, you can change the action and leave the guilt: ‘I broke a dish. I can apologize, I can buy a new dish.’…If I broke a dish and felt shame about it, it’s, ‘Oh, I’m such a klutz. I’m a horrible person. You can’t trust me with anything.’ Even if I apologize, I’m still this horrible, broken thing.”

When Kristin noticed her son using shame language about himself, she hoped to address it quickly, so she met with a school counselor to ask about resources. That’s when they both discovered there was next to nothing that dealt with shame and kids. So Kristin set out to create something herself.

In group therapy once, members were tasked with role playing certain events or feelings they might be having. Kristin was asked to play the doomsayer, the person who could only see negative aspects about herself. Jokingly, she referred to herself as “the Awfulizer.” Then, she thought that would make a great children’s book someday.

Well, “someday” has arrived. Kristin recently released the illustrated story “The Awfulizer: Learning to Overcome the Shame Game.”

She explained, “It starts with eight-year-old James on the school bus, and he’s remembering…he got in trouble for talking during class. That’s when his Awfulizer, his shame, shows up. It tells him that it wasn’t just a mistake; it’s that he’s a bad kid and everybody knows. And the more he listens to this voice telling him that he’s bad and reminding him of all the bad things he’s done to prove that point, the bigger the Awfulizer gets, to the point where it’s all James can see. He’s just enclosed in the darkness of the shadow of the Awfulizer. It takes his parents coming to him and [saying], ‘We know something’s wrong. Please trust us. Can you tell us what’s going on?’ James finally gets the courage to tell them about the Awfulizer. And when he does that, when he starts to talk about his feelings and he hears how his parents also struggle with shame, that’s when the Awfulizer shrinks and disappears. Then, James learns to become an Awesomizer!”

Kristin recently penned an article, citing the statistic that mental health disorders are on the rise for children ages three to 17. She believes that shame contributes to that statistic.

She explained, “Kids today face a world unlike anything we ever had to face when we were young. We might be bullied or teased by people in our class, town, or church. It was a face-to-face interaction…Now, kids experience it everywhere [because of the internet]. It could come from a 45-year-old living in L.A. posting a comment on an article [a young person] may have written or a picture they posted or a video their parent uploaded of them.”

Because of this, Kristin notes, some kids are choosing to stay away from social media, but it is still an uphill battle.

A family’s faith life can play a positive role in overcoming the shame game. Kristin said, “We’re created in God’s image, so at our core, we are good and we are beautiful. Shame is a lie that wants to tell you that you’re broken and beyond reach. I explained once to my husband that I always believed that Jesus forgave me, but I could never forgive myself because I felt broken. I know God loves me, but sometimes I have a hard time loving myself. So that’s what shame did to me…I can’t explain how much purer or brighter my relationship is with God once I can see myself the way He sees me. Once I could break the glasses of shame and [realize], ‘I am beautiful, I am created in His image, and I am worthy” – that has been a real blessing for me.”

One way in which Kristin and her husband, singer-songwriter Matt Maher, promote this idea with their kids is by playing “The Table Game” on a regular basis. While everyone is together eating dinner, each person has to say something positive about all the other people at the table, then end by saying something positive about themselves. “I think it’s great,” said Kristin, “because it teaches you to see beautiful things in those around you, but also remember what you like about yourself.”

Ultimately, Kristin has one goal for kids who read “The Awfulizer”: “My biggest hope is for [children] to realize they’re not alone, that everyone struggles with this. Shame grows in isolation and in the dark. The more we can bring it to light and light candles, the more we’ll be able to [fight it]. Because we can’t avoid shame. It’s going to happen, it’s the nature of our world. But we can respond to it in a healthy way…And I’ve actually had a lot of my friends who have read it as adults say, ‘I’ve learned just as much as my kid…’ The idea that just because you make a mistake doesn’t mean you are a mistake – that’s something that we need to have spoken over us a couple of times in our lives to remind ourselves that we are not defined by what we have done.”

(To listen to my full interview with Kristin Maher, click on the podcast link beginning at 13:30):

1) Sarah Hart, 2) Kristin Maher – Christopher Closeup interviews