Shame: The Dirty Hot Potato

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When my children were fifteen and eleven, they were both in crisis. My son at eleven suffered a concussion that was not resolving, despite medication and treatment. My daughter, who was fifteen, was bullied at her school and became depressed and withdrawn. When we moved her to a new school, she was inconsolable and attempted suicide. She was hospitalized in an adolescent psych ward and my son was at home unable to attend school. Both of my children were suffering, and I was helpless to change their situation. 

What made it worse was the shame surrounding my daughter’s suicide attempt. I couldn’t talk to other parents because I didn’t want the stigma to follow her for the rest of her life and to be labeled the unstable one, the one with the diagnosis. And the shame goes both ways. I know that there is always that unspoken question that hovers over the actions of the child, especially in cases of invisible disabilities, like Autism, ADD, and mental health struggles, the whispered, “What did they do to their kids?” Despite all efforts to give stable and loving environments, we don’t always get it right and can’t control our children’s lives.

Secrecy and hiding were natural for me. I had grown up in a house where the first words, when something broke or went missing, were, “Who did this!” We played the game of assigning blame and discharged anger and disapproval onto whoever made a mistake. I call it the dirty hot potato—if I pass the blame to someone else, I don’t get burned. I won’t be shamed and unlovable.

I wanted to hide all my imperfections to stay safe and accepted. My mind had an extra-large dumpster to hold my shame, blame, and all the things too ugly or painful to share. This repository of shame and blame eventually kept me from accepting my child’s mistakes, and difficulties. I had unconsciously applied this perfectionism to their lives, and we all felt the need to hide from each other to avoid shame. Paradoxically, hiding the pain around a psychological illness intensifies the shame. 

Shame only exists in relationships with others. It is when the acceptance and belonging are threatened. We’ve done something to cut ourselves off from the collective. We have damaged our reputation, regard, and worthiness and deserve what we get.

Shame grows in secrecy and fades in the light of warm accompaniment. Shame is registered in the right hemisphere of the brain, the emotional processing center, and does not respond to left brain logic and rationality. It needs warm emotional presence, our ability to care for this emotion without flinching or seeing ourselves as unlovable. Only when we have soothed ourselves with warmth and presence, can we access a larger perspective. 

As my mentor reminds me, “If you knew then what you know now, you’d have done it differently.” And yes, I’d have focused more on my connection with my kids and less on their finding and maintaining peer friendships. I’d have done fewer gymnastics lessons and more cuddling. I’d have taken care of my stress and workaholism and gotten help to regulate my own stretched-thin nervous system. And I didn’t because I did not know how much I was transmitting to my kids. What I can do right now is to forgive myself for not knowing what I did not know. 

One way to accompany myself is to forgive. Initially, I had resistance to forgiving myself because if I forgave myself, I thought I’d accept mediocrity. I’d be lazy and the shame was holding me to a standard to try harder. The developmental benefit of shame gives me a signal about how to protect relationships and is an important social cue. When there’s shame around my child’s behavior, it can easily spill onto me as the parent. And if I don’t recognize the recurring shame circuit, my life gets smaller, as I hide from the perception of judgment all around me. When I take on shame for another’s being how they are, I make a prison for myself with no way out.

Forgiving myself means I stop wanting to punish myself with guilt and shame for mistakes I have made. Forgiveness means I can make mistakes and still be worthy of my love and support. It does not mean the things I did were wonderful. Forgiving myself teaches me that I have goodness inside me always. 

Steps to Self-forgiveness and Calming Shame

Take a moment to notice the shame in yourself related to your child, or to how you are thinking about their actions or being. Simple acknowledgment can start to offer relief.

Notice the quality of the feeling. Locate it in the body, and notice the shape, color, and intensity. Does shame feel like curling up, a sinking? When we notice how something is—we separate enough to be able to care for it, instead of blending with it.

What is the shame asking for? What would it be like? Some understanding about how hard it has been? “I forgive myself for this shame. It’s okay to feel shame; it is a natural protective response that wants me to be loved and accepted. I promise to still love and accept myself, even when I feel shame.” 

When we see our shame, make space for it, and offer it warmth, we can accompany ourselves and not fall into the shame hole. We learn that shame, just like any emotion, is asking for our care and understanding. We can stop hiding from ourselves and earn the confidence to see our worth even when shame is visiting.

Written by: by Celia Landman

Celia Landman, MA, is a mindfulness educator offering support to teens and adults. She draws from experiences working with those impacted by trauma, addiction, and anxiety, and creates customized meditation, visualizations, and trainings to reconnect them to their wholeness. She was ordained by Thich Nhat Hahn as a member of the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism. She is also a certified trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication. Her new book, When the Whole World Tips: Parenting through Crisis with Mindfulness and Balance (Parallax Press, Nov. 21, 2023), describes how to find balance while navigating seemingly impossible parenting situations. Learn more at celialandman.com

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