Every parent wrestles with feelings of shame from time to time. Here's how to recognize it, own it, and show yourself a little compassion.
For many years I longed to be a mother and fought the good fight against infertility. I experienced a roller coaster of emotions. Disappointment, anxiety, fear, pain, uncertainty, jealousy, frustration, and feeling helpless were the norm for me. But one of the strongest feelings I dealt with for most of my journey was, drumroll please—shame!
Why Is Shame a Parenting Struggle?
The other emotions I wrestled with were not necessarily easy, but I coped because I rationalized that the circumstances were beyond my control. If I felt disappointed each time I learned I wasn't pregnant, I could chalk it up to one of the infertility procedures not working. When I learned a friend was expecting, and pangs of jealousy gnawed at my heart, I knew those feelings were normal. After all, I had been trying for years to get pregnant. It seemed like my friend just winked and instantly conceived.
Shame, however, was a far more complex dragon to slay. I felt broken, and every failed attempt to become pregnant was a reminder that I had a defective body.
New York Times bestselling author, Dr. Brené Brown, is a pioneer on the topics of vulnerability, courage, and shame. She summed shame up beautifully in her article Shame Versus Guilt:
"I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection."
Twenty-five years and eight kids later, I clearly overcame infertility. (Be careful what you wish for!) But I still remember grappling with shame. Because I couldn't get pregnant, I felt like a complete failure and unworthy of the motherhood tribe I ached to belong to.
These strategies will help when shame rears its ugly head in your own parenting journey.
Recognize Shame and Let it Breathe
The feelings we have about our families are much like the weather. When our kids, home life, marriage, and careers are thriving, it's like enjoying a picture-perfect summer's day with bright blue skies, the glowing sun, and a delicate breeze. We're excited and proud to share our good fortune with the entire world.
But when we're facing a family crisis, we're suddenly under a dark cloud. We'll do just about anything to stay protected from the incoming storm. We become quiet and hunker down, alone, until the nasty situation passes.
Shame is like one of those unpleasant bad weather days. It's an uncomfortable feeling, and it can be much easier to hide and stay out of the elements until the discomfort passes.
I experienced one such storm when three of my children were diagnosed with significant speech and developmental delays at the age of three. (This happened about 15 years ago, and child development specialists were finding that autism was becoming a more prevalent diagnosis amongst developmentally delayed children.) To say this was like weathering a horrific storm is an understatement. But I was learning to support and advocate for my kids, so I had to batten down the hatches and stay the course.
It's easier to run and hide from the dark storm of shame. But if you do that, you'll never deal with the emotions.
The emotions my family and I experienced were constantly in flux, but shame drained me early on. Initially, I was heartbroken that my kids would have to work harder to overcome the setback. Worse, though, was that villain of a feeling—shame. With three kids diagnosed with the same developmental delays, I figured we had defective genes.
After overcoming years of infertility, this wasn't an easy situation to cope with. But the best advice I received was from another parent facing the same struggles—own the feelings and let it breathe.
It's easier to run and hide from the dark storm of shame. But if you do that, you'll never deal with the emotions. They can fester and take control of your life.
When you recognize that you're feeling shameful, you can work through those uncomfortable feelings. You realize they aren't wrong; they're simply how you feel in the moment. Allowing yourself to feel is like consciously breathing—it leaves you with a greater sense of determination and clarity.
Once I addressed my own feelings of shame with my delayed kids, I was able to then focus on getting them all the help they needed and deserved. Soon, we were moving in a positive direction. Eventually, all three kids experienced a positive outcome.
Own Your Shame Hot Spots
Shame seems to sneak in and hit us when we're already struggling. When we have feelings of shame, they often relate to some of the hot spots we face regularly. We're not organized enough, thin enough, or creative enough. Our insecurities can lead us to feel shame. But by being aware of what our shame hot spots are, we can nip this process in the bud.
When we have feelings of shame, they often relate to some of the hot spots we face regularly.
For me, always being late was a shame trigger. Although we were rarely more than 10 minutes late for appointments, school, or practices, being tardy made my kids feel uncomfortable. My ace in the hole was always the same excuse: "Sorry we're late—I didn't count on the traffic!"
The truth was, I wasn't prepared. I underestimated how much time I needed getting out the door. I always assumed I had an extra five minutes to put dishes away or throw in a load of laundry. I felt ashamed that I was lying to cover up my poor time-management skills.
I realized that I needed to own my chronic lateness. Once I finally started getting ready earlier, we began arriving on time. I no longer have to endure the shame of coming up with traffic excuses.
According to Bernard Golden, Ph.D., shame causes us to judge ourselves negatively whenever we do something we consider to be a failure. And that relates not only to failures by our personal standards, but by other people's standards, as well.
As busy parents, we are not perfect. We're bound to make mistakes or react to life's circumstances in ways that we regret. Perhaps you have a child who is always getting in trouble at school, so you don't want to show your face at the next PTO meeting. Maybe you're ashamed of criticizing your spouse in front of your inlaws. Sometimes the circumstances are even more severe, like navigating a painful divorce or dealing with a child who may have a substance abuse problem.
In the world of parenting, we will never be without experiences that cause us to feel like failures sometimes. It's during those difficult moments that we need to learn how to rally. One way is to practice self-compassion.
Meet shame head-on by finding time to tune into your feelings and remind yourself that you're only human. Although there's always room in our full lives for improvement, we're still doing the best we can, especially under challenging circumstances. We need to be aware of that.
Psych Central’s How to Practice Self-Compassion When You Think You Can’t offers simple advice on self-compassion such as taking deep breaths and acknowledging that you’re currently being challenged. “... every moment, every minute, is an opportunity to choose kindness," the article says. "And that kindness can be a few words: This hurts. I’m struggling. Or a few questions: What do I need? How can I give this to myself?”
When I'm having a low period in my life, I head to the bath! A hot bubble bath is relaxing and gives me a short slice of time to simply "be." That time I spend alone allows me to contemplate what I've been experiencing and how I'm going to move forward. It breaks my usual harried pace and eases me back on track.
My colleague, the Savvy Psychologist, interviewed psychologist Dr. Joseph Burgo about the often-misunderstood experience of shame, and most importantly, how to overcome it. I highly recommend you give this valuable advice a listen!
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