I felt eyes burning into the back of my head as my two-year daughter laid across the floor at the grocery store screaming, “I wanna home.” As her anger and volume increased, so did the number of people starring in my direction. I could simultaneously feel both the ones who condemn me for not being able to “control” my child and the ones who empathize with me based on their own experiences. I focused on the ones condemning me, and my guilt started to bubble up inside me. I knew it was her nap time and it was too risky to try and squeeze one more errand in; and now everyone in the store is looking at me, wondering “what am I going to do?” Is there a way I can leave the store without everyone judging me as I go?
I want to be the good mother and soothe her by saying that I sympathize with her, but in my flustered state from all the people staring at me I started to use that firm tone, “Five more minutes, we are almost done.” I tried to pick her up, but she was not having any of it. Do I leave now with the cart half full in the aisle, do I spend 5 minutes finishing, or do I run to the checkout and pay for what I have? So many questions, but no right answer. I was really feeling my stomach churn as I knew it was my fault, I was feeling guilty because I pushed her. However, in that moment my embarrassment and anger were interfering with me being able to come up with a solution.
So now looking back on the situation, I wonder am I feeling guilty because I tried to squeeze in one more errand before my daughter’s nap or if I am feeling shame due to her loud public display of displeasure. Let me pause to define the difference between guilt and shame as I had been using to use them interchangeably until I immersed myself in Brene Brown’s work. According to Brown, they are both emotions we experience when we fall short of our own expectations or standards. But there is a big difference where we apply that emotion. Do we apply it ourselves or to the action we did? For instance, in this example with my two-year-old, was the thought going through my head, “I made a mistake in not going straight home” (guilt) or “This makes me a terrible mother” (shame). Guilt focuses on recognizing regret for bad behavior, while shame focuses on condemning the self for the bad behavior. I want to say that I was feeling guilty in that moment, but I was really feeling shame. I was in the habit of shaming myself for these types of situations.
The problem is when I shamed myself it only led to more anger and negativity. I was in an endless loop of putting myself down. When you focus on guilt, then there is a chance to realize the bad behavior and make a change for next time. Thus, the key is to first identify how do you talk to yourself. Do you put yourself down or do you realize the behavior was where you went wrong?
By making this first distinction then we cannot only change the voice in our heads but also start to identify how we use our words. A huge problem in my house right now is name-calling. One kid will get mad at the other and then quickly remark how stupid or mean the other one is. When I see my kids do this, I immediately correct and tell them that it does not matter what happened, nothing justifies calling the other one mean or stupid. I continually reinforce the need to really look at what was the behavior the other one did that led them to feel so angry. As a parent, it is easy to identify this behavior in our children.
However, the talk inside my own head does not always seem that straightforward. It is so easy to say to myself, “I know better,” “I should have been smarter” or ” I should have predicted that would happen” all of which make me feel stupid. These phrases are so easy to play in my head over and over. But that is only going to make me spiral further down the rabbit hole. The problem is when we use words that shame us or others, they stop you from growing or being able to do anything different. They leave you feeling empty, depressed, and alone.
I cannot control what my two-year-old is going to do, but I can control how I react to it. In the story from above, I scooped her up and left the store because I let my shame get to me. A couple of months later, she was sitting in the front of the cart and had another meltdown in the grocery store. Honestly, I don’t even remember what set her off this time, but she started screaming and flailing around and this time kind eyes meet mine with a knowing look. She said, “I can remember those days, we’ve all been there.” This comment helped me keep perspective on the situation. I realized that I could let the shame eat me up again and leave the store, or I could accept the crying was the result of my actions and finish up as quickly as possible. I chose the latter and by the time we got to the car, she was smiling again.
Brene Brown further explains that “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” The loop we play in our own heads can easily keep us spiraling downward until you are feeling unworthy. Empathy will break that spiral because then we are trying to understand our experience. When we talk to ourselves as if we are a friend looking at what happened, then we can identify the action and how we can work on it.
Every moment when we feel guilt or shame starts to rise up inside us is a chance to ask ourselves how would we respond if our friend was telling us what just happened? “Yeah, I’ve made that mistake too, I’ve pushed naptime, but it’s ok to make a mistake.” If your friend was telling you this story, you would empathize with her deeply and try to make her feel better. Focus directly on what behavior is causing you distress because that is an aspect you can do differently in the future.
Take a moment, and think of a situation in which you felt you weren’t doing enough as a mom or doing the right thing, what was that thought in your head? Was it shame or guilt? Now bring forth your empathic powers because you are a mom, I know you have them, and use the power on yourself. You are talking to a friend, “I’ve made a mistake like that it is so hard, it’s hard when things don’t go how you expected, but you got this.” Comment below one phrase you could use to show empathy to yourself.
If you would like to learn more, I invite you to my free masterclass Stop Mom Guilt: 3 Secrets to Let It Go on March 24, 2022, @ 10 am CST. (Click the link to register). Shame and guilt can be isolating, and Brown further explains, “Shame is a silent epidemic.” Therefore, together in a supportive environment, we can create a community to understand together, empathize for ourselves and each other knowing we are not alone. Come join us!