Dealing with Shame and Blame

An extraordinarily competent teacher that I know admitted after teaching fine class recently that he felt ashamed of himself for not doing a better job. I was taken aback. Where could that shame have come from? It certainly wasn’t appropriate for the present situation; it didn’t seem like it should be his. On an impulse, I asked him who had been ashamed of him before. He thought of his mother, and started recalling childhood times of being sent to his room for being “bad.” “You should be ashamed of yourself,” was the message he got.

As he talked more of those times, a picture began emerging of an angry little boy being repeatedly sent to his room for displaying his anger. “I must have been angry about something,” he said. Then, “She was the adult; she was responsible for the environment. She should have gone to her room ‘til she could figure out what was making me angry and what she could do to change it.”

How many of us have grown up feeling ashamed, or feeling that we were bad because of the messages we got from our parents? And how many of us, as parents, now send our children to their room (or hit or yell or make them “take time out” or whatever) because we are feeling bad? How many of us end up directing our frustration--at how hard the job of parenting is, how inadequate the resources, and how bad we feel about it all--at our children? I know I do... Realizing that the children often aren’t the cause of the problem is a good first step. But if we’ve taken that one, we often fall into a trap with the next one: “someone is surely bad in this situation, and if it isn’t the children, it must be me.” Berating ourselves every time we lay the blame on the children and walking around feeling like we’re bad, however, is of no use to them or us. Well, then, can we just stop the blame cold? I doubt it. Vowing to never do it again can point us in the right direction, but can also easily set us up for failure.

As we try to notice why we blame the children (and for each of us, it’s a little different), we can start working out long-term solutions--hard in the situation of scarcity that most parents face, but not totally impossible. How can I find someone else to blow off steam with first? How can I forgive my parents for what they did to me, so I don’t have to do it to my children? How can I reduce the stress in my environment? How can I get more relief or more rest? How can I have more good close times with the children to balance out my perspective on the relationship?

But we don’t have to wait for all of that. What we can do, now, is start talking with t he children about what the real source of the difficulty is. I, for example, do most of my yelling when I’m particularly tired. Behavior that was perfectly acceptable from them yesterday--or an hour ago--now turns me into a screaming meanie. I’ve just run out of slack. And it’s not that hard to let them know that this is what’s going on. “Boy, I’m really tired, you guys. I bet you can tell from the way I’m sounding.” They now have the information. They’re not bad. They’re going to have to take the brunt of my feelings for a while, but it’s clear to all of us that they’re not the cause of them.

It’s not ideal of course. But if I can be that clear (and so long as I don’t damage them physically), we can make it through with no lasting bad effects. They won’t grow up to be ashamed of themselves.

I have a vivid memory of a time several years ago when I was at the end of my rope. Everything the children did or said was a new outrage, and I just couldn’t stop yelling. Finally my four-year-old took the toddler aside, explaining kindly to him: “Mommy’s tired. She’s going to yell. Let’s go play.” His voice was entirely free of either blame or shame. What a great gift to an overstretched mother--and what a hopeful sign for the future.