Disclaimer: As a helping professional, I have found that the concept of shame has been a game changer. I love how it has helped me understand human behavior and helped clients reshape their behavior. For those who don’t know much about it please read and watch everything that Brene’ Brown has ever done. Seriously, just look up her Ted talks on Youtube.
So, as a very basic definition of shame, you must first know that shame is an insidious voice that we all have inside of us. It’s that inner critic who says means things to us. If you don’t have it, you’re a sociopath. Shame pipes up telling us that we are less than, makes us worried about what people will think or makes us think that we will never measure up. It makes our mistakes personal attacks on our worthiness.
Many of us can talk that monster down. We call this "shame resilience." But some do not. If left unchecked, shame will make you either puff (get angry, lash out and blame), people please (kiss up or make nice in an inauthentic manner), or disappear (shut down or go away).
For example, let’s say that you get a call from your child’s principal that your son has been suspended. If this creates a shame message in you such as ‘I am a horrible parent. I can’t believe my child has done something so terrible as to be suspended,’ your shame has put your worthiness on the line. When that happens, a parent might react in one of the following three ways. To “puff” might mean that you yell at your child or blame their friends for the incident or the school for their mistreatment of your son. To “people please” might mean that you bribe your child to be good in the future or try to kiss up to the administration to get them to see you for who you are, a darn fine parent. To disappear might mean that there was no discussion with your son about the infraction. That you tell no one and do not speak of the incident.
I often say that having a child is agreeing to a lifelong battle with parental shame. Even the best at shame resilience can succumb the “shoulds” and “supposed tos” of parenting. It starts before they are born. You should stop drinking coffee, you really should breast feed, you really should not sleep with your children in your bedroom, you‘re not supposed to let your children watch television before a certain age. The list goes on and on.
Every day parents are faced with “good parent” and “bad parent” decisions according to all the magazine articles and facebook posts. A good parent would make their children a warm breakfast before school. A bad parent provides milk and a sugary (delicious) cereal. A good parent would be home for their children when they get off the bus each day. A bad parent comes home late from work and brings pizza.
So parents either learn to create a shield of defense around their shame messages or revel in the self doubt that the shame creates. If you‘re the “shield from shame” parent, your shame messages and subsequent behaviors and thoughts are relatively unchallenged by anyone. There is no opportunity to reality check your shame messages. Or, if you are the “revel in shame” parent, every parenting decision you make is up for debate. Every behavior and thought, no matter how brilliant or sound, is approached as a group project, opening yourself up to feedback from just about any source. This person’s shame messages are worn for all to see and for all to soothe. So we are left with shame message and either getting no feedback or becoming so dependent on others for soothing that you have no real respect for yourself and neither do your children.
Now that we know what are the three unhealthy reactions, let’s talk about the one healthy response. Authenticity. Being real. Making space for the ugly messages in your head and not reacting to them at all. Talking to a trusted friend or partner and deciding how you want to handle a situation based on your authentic self. Reality checking with yourself that something as simple as pizza or cereal does NOT make a parent good or bad. Being vulnerable with someone who is healthy and trusted, not the entirety of social media participants.
When we can push past shame, we can begin to create solutions that actually address the problem. Shame makes things personal (YOU are a bad parent because your son flunked his math test). Shame resilience allows us to maintain our worthiness and concentrate on behaviors (You have not taken enough time to help your son study for his math test). When a parent can concentrate on behaviors with their worthiness safely stowed inside them, they can help. When they concentrate on proving or disproving their worthiness as a parent, well, then the solution is lost. You are lost in that quagmire rather than helping your son with his math.
Shame resilient parenting is a tough undertaking. It requires the voice of other shame resilient people in a parent’s world, helping them talk back the monster. It requires parents to slow down and respond rather than react to shaming situations. Above all, it requires parents to know that they are worthy but not perfect. That they can be a good parent who can learn from past experiences and grow without puffing, people pleasing or disappearing.
“Shame isn't a quiet grey cloud, shame is a drowning man who claws his way on top of you, scratching and tearing your skin, pushing you under the surface.”
― Kirsty Eagar, Raw Blue
Whitney Warren Alexander owns and operates a group private practice in Stillwater, OK. She is a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist and a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor.