Meet My Shame Monster
The morning had been going fine until it was time to leave a fun-filled library story hour. My two-year-old son was refusing to exit and a tantrum was quickly escalating to “threat level midnight,” meaning he was becoming aggressive. My hanger wasn’t helping. I finally scooped him up to carry him outside. In a throwback to breastfeeding, he forcefully shoved his hand down my shirt in protest, hitting my breaking point. “Stop! Stop! Stop!” I shouted. Just then, another mom overheard and approached us saying, “Come here, buddy,” motioning to take him away. I quickly adjusted him in my arms and tried to laugh it off saying, “I’ve got it.” Internally, I wanted to crawl in a hole. Another mom had witnessed one of my darker parenting moments and saw the momma bear fury I try so hard to contain. While I believe her intention was to be supportive, my survival brain registered her action as a way of communicating I was incapable of caring for my son in that moment. As soon as I wrestled my fuming toddler into his car seat, I hid behind my car crying.
In that moment, my motherhood shame monster spoke up: “You’re no good at parenting. Why can’t you keep it together?” I felt as if there were some perfectly cool, calm, and collected mother sitting on my shoulder giving me that look. The one she uses so effectively to corral her own children without ever raising a finger or the tone of her voice. She was implying that I should be able to do the same, or otherwise I’m failing. This voice is like a younger version of Emily Gilmore with a touch of hippie-granola. She seems really sweet and down to earth, but really, she’s quite terrifying.
What is Shame?
Shame is an instinctual response we all have, and its intention is to keep our failures and weaknesses covered up. This instinct is determined to keep us from being kicked out of our tribe or seen as the weakest link. It warns, “If people see you for who you really are, they may not love you.” Shame wants us to meet our basic need for love and belonging. But unfortunately, most of us have had shame used as a weapon to manipulate or control. Used intentionally or unintentionally, this can make our own shame voice not just unhelpful, but truly toxic. While I knew the mom from my story didn’t actually pose a threat to my survival, my brain’s fear center wasn’t convinced. This deep part of my brain knew she saw too much of my weakness, and it jumped into action.
Brene Brown, a go-to researcher and author for all things shame, identifies a list of shame categories in her book Daring Greatly. Of the 12 she lists, three are parenting, family, and motherhood. So clearly, I’m not alone in feeling shame as a mother! Shame in our culture is somewhat like air; we rarely notice it, but we’re breathing it in and out all the time. Typically none of us wants to talk about it, but since shame thrives in the dark, this makes it more powerful.
Brown says we have three main instinctual responses to shame: move against, move away, or move towards. These instincts are similar to our fight/flight/freeze response. We get angry and aggressive. We isolate and numb. Or we fit in and people-please. But each of these responses typically increases shame rather than reducing it, leaving us in an endless shame spiral. Maybe you can relate to these reactions in your parenting. Maybe you yell at your kids when you’re feeling badly for having yelled at your kids. Or you drink a few glasses of wine at night to quiet your inner critic ruminating on the mistakes of the day. Perhaps you intentionally post perfect looking pictures on social media after deleting the ones of “real” life. All of these actions can be rooted in shame reactions. But none provides the anecdote to shame: human connection.
Building Shame Resilience
We aren’t capable of eradicating shame. But Brene Brown teaches that we can build shame resilience. The following list is adapted both from her writings as well as my own experience in helping myself and my clients reduce our inner shame voices. These are steps that you can begin to take on your own. However, keep in mind that sometimes having the guidance of an affirming and supportive therapist or other professional can be necessary to assist in quieting toxic shame voices.
- Get to know your shame voice(s). Draw this voice, give it a name and a face. What does it say? What does this survival instinct want? What does it need to hear to feel safe?
- Practice authenticity and vulnerability. Find a safe person to share your shame voice with; this is someone who won’t ignore, minimize, or “silver-line” your feelings, but rather empathize and “get” you.
- Reality check your shame messages. Shame doesn’t reside in the logical part of our brain, but rather our emotional center. Affirming our feelings while also reminding ourselves of the truth we know is important. This can be with a friend, a journal, or just your mind.
- Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion doesn’t come naturally to most Americans. Kristin Neff is a researcher on this topic, proving its power to reduce shame and insecurity. You can find out about her work here.
If this post resonates with you, don’t miss Part 2 on confronting our own monsters, as I discuss reducing the use of shame in parenting. Also, please use the comments to share how you relate; empathy is healing for us all!