Creating Protection from Shame

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

It was over 20 years ago that I attended my first parenting class. I still remember our first assignment: to buy a child-size pitcher so that the children could pour their own milk at the table. The second challenge was to demonstrate how to use it – with a twist. I was supposed to pour the milk – but miss the glass, asking, “Oops, did I make a mistake or am I a mistake?” My children laughed and said – with humor, “You are a mistake.”

But it isn’t so funny. It turns out that how you interpret the mistakes you make is a very big deal. When we make a mistake and see it as that, just a mistake, we may feel guilt – but mostly we can talk about it and fix that mistake. On the other hand, if we have an inner voice that implies that we are the mistake, that somehow we are defective or bad (I’m so stupid, I’m a bad kid/parent, I can never get it right, etc.) we feel a sense of shame: that almost unspeakable icky sticky feeling.

Where did those feelings come from? Where did we lose the distinction between I am a mistake and I made a mistake?

My hunch is that it comes from our own childhood. Like me, you may have memories of one of your adult caregivers losing it. Maybe they yelled, or hit or chided you. Maybe they told people you loved about your mistakes in public. As a small child you likely did not have the where with all to look at that adult and think, “Sheesh, it was just a mistake, you are over-reacting” or “You must have had a bad day because you are seriously out of control!” Probably you didn’t have another person to go to who might take your side and say, “You are right, you made a mistake and you know how to fix it.”

Practices for immunizing ourselves and our children against shame:
Practice “claiming” your mistakes in front of your children. “I made a mistake and I’m okay. I’m going to figure out how to fix it.” This makes it clear that we all make mistakes.

Practice helping your children (and yourself) see problems as mistakes that can be fixed. “You were angry than Jenny took your toy. Hitting her was a mistake. How are you going to fix it?”

Practice fixing your own mistakes with your children. “Leon, I’m really sorry I yelled at you yesterday. I was mad and I should have calmed down before I spoke. I’ll work on calming down first next time.”

Remember a few rules about repairing mistakes:
– Everyone has to be calm.
– Apologies work only if they are sincere. (Telling children to apologize is usually not helpful)
– Repairing a mistake includes thinking and sharing how you won’t make the same mistake again.

For more on the difference between shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment check out Brené Brown’s video.

More on mistakes:
From mistakes to compassion
Making amends
Empathy to fix shame

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