Parenting the parent series: Part 1 – How to handle feelings of shame

Shame cannot be avoided, says occupational therapist, Samantha Toweel-Moore, but it can be managed. Here’s how to handle feelings of shame better.

Fill in the blank space … “I’m not _________enough.” Thin? Smart? Organised? Disciplined? Social? Witty? Whatever your answer, “I’m not enough” thoughts underlie shame. Parenting is the ‘never enough’ head office. Every parent feels it.

Bailey: “I feel ashamed when I force my son to participate in tennis lessons because it’s the ‘done thing’ rather than because it’s of interest to him.”

Gregg: “I feel it when I lose of control of my emotions and get really angry.”

Wenzlo: “I feel ashamed when I break my promises to my children, even when circumstances are outside of my control.”

Delano: “I get that sinking feeling when I look the other way to avoid conflict while adults treat my children badly.”

Shame creates a physiological response similar to the stress response: it feels traumatic, you experience a sinking sensation in your stomach, your heart rate increases, and your palms sweat; but the tell-tale sign of the ‘shame response’ is the urge to hide away and avoid eye contact.

To accept ourselves, we need to feel worthy of love and have a sense of belonging. Shame is the wedge in the way of achieving this; it makes us feel unworthy. This needs to be worked through so that we can be our authentic selves and grow into our unique greatness.

Are there benefits to shame and guilt?

We can distinguish between them if we listen to the different self-talk statements, e.g. shame may say, “I am a loser,” while guilt would rather say, “I behaved like a loser.” Shame tells you that you are the problem; guilt tells you that your behaviour has led to a problem.
Shame doesn’t propel us to fix the problem. It’s destructive and makes us believe that we can’t change or improve. It leads to addiction, eating disorders, depression and violence. It sucks courage out of us and causes us to disconnect from others. Shame causes us to hide from the world, and it makes it impossible for us to participate in the arena of life. Scientific research has discovered no positive outcomes linked to shame.

Guilt acts like chains which lock the blanket of shame around us. Guilt is a powerful constructive force. It occurs when our actions don’t match our values. To break free from the chains of guilt, we have to recognise it as identity related pain. It causes a discomfort within us, which can drive us to act and make changes for the better.

Am I in a state of shame?

The answer is ‘yes’ if you do any of the following:

  • Hide and isolate yourself – avoid activities and people where shame may be triggered.
  • People please – you compromise your own happiness or values to make others happy and avoid conflict.
  • Fight shame with shame – you point out others’ shortcomings before they can point out yours. This could involve name-calling, put-downs and bullying.

Build shame resilience

  • Seek empathy. Shame thrives on secrets. Share your shame story with someone you trust. It’s is often experienced between people and therefore best overcome through empathy. Often, elders and priests are positive sources of empathy.
  • Pursue progress, not perfection. Perfection is conditional, and  provokes fear and self-doubt. Progress grows and encourages us to try.
  • Identify trigger thoughts. Shame-saturated thoughts tell us that we’re flawed; unworthy of love and belonging. Our imperfection is necessary – it’s our point of growth.
  • Treat your guilt. Guilt is a form of pain. It needs to be tended to. Act to create the change. Solution-orientated confessions heal guilt.
  • Practice mindfulness. This is the ability to be present in the moment. Pay attention to your mind and breathe deeply to flush adrenalin from your body.
  • Be kind to yourself. Kindness calms and soothes your brain. Treat yourself with the love and respect you would give your best friend. Neuroscientist, Dr Caroline Leaf, says that we’re wired for love and kindness. Our brains function at their optimum when we’re compassionate towards ourselves. This is not being ‘soft’ ; it encourages us to grow.
  • Dare to be vulnerable. The mask of perfection creates immense stress and the need to control everything. In her bestseller, Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown (Penguin), she states that embracing vulnerability builds courage and connection, and feeds a healthy sense of self-worth.

Communicate without shame

  • Express that the problem belongs in front of you, not between you.
  • Write down a list of the other person’s strengths and how they can be used to address the problem.
  • Thank them for any attempt they’ve made to resolve the issue. It may only be that they’ve been willing to meet to discuss the matter.
  • Take time to find the benefits that will arise when you resolve the issue.
  • Accept responsibility for your part.

Combat shameful parenting

“Childhood experiences of shame change who we are, how we think about ourselves, and (damage) our sense of self-worth” – Brene Brown.

As parents, we can’t ‘shame-proof’ our children. Shame is unavoidable. We can model shame resilience, however:

  • Be compassionate towards other parents. Avoid parenting ‘value’ debates. Make your parenting choices with your value system and support other parents’ right to do the same.
  • Display unconditional love through belonging. ‘Fitting in’ is not belonging. Fitting in is acceptance based on doing what everyone else does. Belonging is being accepted and wanted for being you.
  • Share your shame. Children don’t need perfect parents; they need real parents – human beings who share their experiences. Your child will learn to love and trust himself when he sees you do the same. The moment you sit down with your child and express your mistakes, ask for forgiveness or express your shame, he learns that it’s okay to do the same. It’s vital to remind him that you can take care of yourself. Your vulnerability is not a weakness, it’s courageous. You love and trust yourself enough to be honest, open-minded and willing to grow. This is how.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the main who is actually in the arena.” So remove your mask of shame and enter the arena of life.

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