You are enough.

Dear Liam,

One of the greatest joys of being your dad is seeing your tender heart slowly unfurled. I love your personality, I enjoy watching how you process everything around you, and I delight in getting to know your character. One of your character traits I'm witnessing more and more is your fierce independence. From pouring your own juice to picking out and putting on your own clothes, you love trying to do everything on your own.

Yet what's most beautiful about your independence at this age is how you don't hesitate to ask for help when you need it. This past weekend, when you had two arms in the same shirt sleeve, you immediately acknowledged you were in a bit over your head, and quickly said: "I need help, dada," without even a wisp of shame. I love the way you ask for help, and I'm even happier to oblige.

Part of me wants you to stay just like this. I'm inclined to protect you from ever discovering shame. I don't want you to feel it. I want you to go through your entire life being 100% capable of asking for help when you need it without ever feeling like asking for that help makes you less of a person. I never want you to feel inadequate.

Yet, alas, I know I can't guard you from shame. It pains me to admit it, but I know there will be times when you try to do something independently and fail. Many of those times, instead of simply admitting you need help, you'll feel less than adequate. You'll call into question your worth as a person, you may see other people as more valuable than you, and in some times of quiet desperation, you may even question whether you're even loveable at all. That feeling, that painful tug at your heart, is called toxic shame.

There was a time in my life when the weight of my shame was so cumbersome I could barely function. Yet at that time, I couldn't even tell you the definition of shame or name what was causing me to feel so utterly worthless. During the peak of this shame curve, my friend Joe introduced me to the work of Dr. Brene Brown. After watching the TED talk Joe sent me, I was immediately hooked and read through 2 of her books in a matter of weeks. Dr. Brown is the world's premier expert on shame, and her work has made a huge, positive impact on my life. According to her, "Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging."*

Even that definition sounds excruciating! So you're probably wondering why I wouldn't make it my #1 priority as your dad to protect you from shame at all costs. Well, the sad news is Dr. Brown's work also shows that would be impossible - everyone experience shame. It is an integral part of the human experience, much to my chagrin. There is good news, however. Dr. Brown's work has proved that while we can't avoid shame, we can be resilient to it.

According to Dr. Brown, building our shame resiliency depends on our ability to learn to give and receive empathy. While empathy is a somewhat common word, it is intricate and complex, and can be quite difficult to learn. As Dr. Brown explains, empathy requires the courage to share our own stories (as difficult and painful as they may be), compassion to be able to non-judgmentally see the world through another person's lens, understand the feelings another person is experiencing, and articulate our understanding of another person's feelings, and connection to be able to support someone who's experiencing high levels of shame. To be honest with you, son, I still have an enormous amount of work to do in order to give and receive empathy at the high level I'd like to, yet I am 100% committed to doing the work. Rather than try to explain empathy in great detail in this letter, my hope is to demonstrate empathy to you through the way I treat you and the way you see me connect with others. When you fail, I want to have the courage to tell you the stories of my failures. When your emotions are overwhelming you, I want to hear what you have to say without rushing to judgement or parental punishment. When your shame causes you to feel alone, I want you to find a loving connection in your dad. I know I will fail at these ideals, but even when I do, I want to invite you into my learning process of empathy and shame resilience. I give you the authority to question how well I'm giving and receiving empathy, and I welcome you to suggest ways I can improve my shame resiliency.

Unfortunately, you will meet people in your life who have not been taught empathy, and who are not working to improve their shame resiliency. Tragically, this could be because they never had empathy demonstrated to them growing up. These people still experience shame as we all do, but since they were never shown how to deal with it properly, they try to quell their shame by deflecting it onto others. Instead of owning their deficiencies and failures, they will find ways to make them the fault of others. You will seldom hear them offer an apology to someone they've hurt, and they'll often play the victim when others make decisions they don't like, even when those decisions don't involve them. Being around these people can be painful because they're constantly trying to make you feel more and more shame. I like the way Dr. Kelly Flanagan puts it: "To maintain the illusion we're not broken, we have to break other people even worse." So when you encounter someone who is less than forthcoming about their own brokenness, you can expect they'll try to inflict you with an extra dose of it.

Sadly, I was one of these people, and still fall back into unempathetic behavior far too often. My childhood had a dearth of empathy, and as the adults around me maintained the illusion they weren't broken, I was shattered into a million pieces. For most of my life, I repeated the model I had been taught - building an impostor persona who maintained a perfect unbroken veneer on the outside, while feeling devastated on the inside as I constantly failed at putting my pieces back together again. As it always does, this formula ended in tragedy.

Yet I'm determined to not use the pain of my childhood as an excuse to continue deplorable behavior. Instead, I want to break the cycle of abuse. That's why I diligently show up at therapy twice per week. That's why you'll see quotations from experts throughout these letters, because I'm constantly reading books that can help me deal with my shame. That's why you'll see me confessing my brokenness, over and over again. That's why I surround myself with empathetic people who help me live an authentic life. I love you too much to pass my shame onto you. No facade of having it all together is worth causing you pain. That's why I will always remind you that you are enough.

You are enough. Enough to be loved, enough to be cherished. Enough to be worthy of my time and attention. Enough to have a voice and be heard. Enough to call me out when I'm not being empathetic. When your grades aren't perfect, you are enough. When you strikeout in little league, you are enough. When you get your heart broken, you are enough. When you are suffering the consequences of bad decisions, you are enough. When you can't handle it on your own and have to ask for help, you are enough.

I love you, God loves you, and you've got what it takes.


Having fun in the pool!

*Brown, Brene. I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't). p5