Let's talk about SHAME, baby.
Recently, an administrator at my son’s school questioned my parenting. Apparently, the following exchange took place earlier that week:
Administrator: “So what do you like to eat for breakfast?”
My son: “Sometimes I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
Administrator: “Is that all you have?”
My son: “Yep.”
She was concerned, wondering if this was all my child ate for breakfast or if he went without breakfast on some days. What she did not know (or what he did not mention at the time, because, you know, he’s 8) was that every day his father or I prepare a healthy breakfast for him. We’re both aware of the importance of protein and complex carbs for a young developing brain, and we would never send him off to learn without food. What she also did not know is that my son is NOT a morning eater. He doesn’t like eating anything in the morning, and we wage the Battle for Breakfast on a nearly daily basis. Yes, sometimes all we manage is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and on other days we have more success with eggs and bacon. All of this is to say that I felt instantly defensive when she brought this up. I felt my stomach tighten, my face flush, and my heart start to race.
My mommy shame had been triggered.
We’ve all experienced shame in some form. As women, we are susceptible to shame in all the roles we juggle: as wives, as mothers, as employees, as daughters, as friends. Shame is that feeling that you are deeply flawed, or that there is something wrong with you. It is the feeling that you do not deserve connection with others, that you are utterly alone in your struggle.
What is shame?
On her website, shame researcher and author Brené Brown defines 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.” You might be wondering how this experience is different from guilt. According to Brown, guilt is the feeling that you DID something bad, shame is the feeling that you ARE bad.
Guilt can be a powerful motivator for change and may actually serve a positive function in our emotional lives. When our behaviors are the problem, we feel empowered to change them. However, when our very personhood and self-worth is the problem, we may feel powerless to make change and even be driven to act out in unhealthy ways.
When we feel unworthy but powerless to change it, we are likely to cope in unhealthy ways. Addictions, self-harm, compulsive sexual behaviors, and other self-destructive acts all have their roots in shame.
Where does shame come from?
Shame is framed by beliefs about who we should be, how we should be, and what we should be. It tells us that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t worthy of connection with others, and that we aren’t measuring up to some ideal. Shame comes from many sources: social media, society, our faith communities, family, friends, movies, teachers, colleagues, health professionals, and perhaps most damagingly, from ourselves. If you were raised in a very strict household, you may have formed beliefs about how you should behave and standards you should uphold. When you don’t meet these standards, you may feel shame and tell yourself, “I’m a bad person. No one could ever love me. I’m a failure as a parent,” etc. Often, we internalize messages we hear growing up and pick up the baton from trusted authority figures when it comes to our beliefs and self-talk.
How does shame affect us?
Shame can lead to a profound sense of isolation, loneliness, and disconnection from others. It can cause us to avoid connection with the very people who may be able to help. Shame can also lead to unhealthy coping behaviors. When we feel unworthy but powerless to change it, we are likely to cope in unhealthy ways. Addictions, self-harm, compulsive sexual behaviors, and other self-destructive acts all have their roots in shame.
Brené Brown states that judgment, silence, and secrecy are like a “petri dish” for cultivating shame. Let’s use my story from above as an example. If I had let my shame take over, I would have been too afraid to share that story with anyone. I would have stewed about it all day, likely berating myself for not being a better mom with more Pinterest-worthy breakfast ideas. I might have beaten myself up about other perceived parenting failures, and I would have isolated myself from sources of support such as other moms (who likely have similar stories and could have supported me). Instead, I shared my story with a trusted friend, who offered empathy and compassion. Instead of disconnection, I found connection, and my feelings of shame dissolved.
Let’s use my story again with a different outcome. Say I reached out to someone who judged me, or said something like, “Wow, my child ALWAYS eats an amazing breakfast before school. I can’t imagine making him a sandwich.” A response like this would just increase my shame and my feeling of being isolated and unworthy.
How do we heal shame?
According to research, the antidote to shame is EMPATHY. When we’re feeling shame, experiencing empathy from another person can help to dissolve it. Empathy tells us that someone else understands what we’re going through, that we’re not alone in our struggle. This can be a powerful force toward connection, which is the opposite of what shame tries to create. Empathy helps us feel understood, accepted, and worthy of love and belonging. It takes courage, though, to tell your story and share your shame with another person.
A note of caution: Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Empathy feels like someone understands your experience and is willing to sit in the pain WITH you, even though it’s uncomfortable. They may not know what to say or do, but you feel their connection regardless. Sympathy, on the other hand, tells you that the other person feels bad for you and is still "other" from you. Typically, these interactions further your sense of isolation and separateness. A great video about the difference between sympathy and empathy can be found here:
If you’re struggling with parenting shame, or any other form of shame that is negatively affecting your life, you need empathy and compassion. Reach out to a trusted friend, contact me or search for a therapist in your area who can help.