My son and I were discussing the crippling guilt and shame we feel a lot of the time, over some sushi at our local mall. We are both kept awake worrying that we’ve done or said things to hurt people. He piped up with the comment, “The golden rule tells us to do unto others, but no one wants the same things. I think it hurts people’s feelings when I am as honest as I would like people to be with me.” Just one of his many, many gems of wisdom.
We were on a walk through the bush some weeks back, and he kept us all thoroughly entertained while trudging like a trooper through thick undergrowth. At one point, I asked him between belly laughs how he got to be so dark and so funny. “Childhood trauma” was his deadpan and accurate response. “You’re welcome?” was mine. It seems, being what I feel was a pretty average parent, may have actually contributed to saving me from the Harry Enfield “Kevin” teenager I was expecting. Both my teens are prone to rollercoaster emotions, tantrums, anxiety, tears, laughter, joy, peace, and struggle, but they seem to sit at the table with their demons and hold me accountable for mine. I still feel guilty for messing them up of course, but they’re finding their way despite their eccentric and unreliable mother.
A dear friend has been watching the family struggles I so openly share, and wrote from Seattle with one sentence: “how do you handle guilt?”. Conversations with parents this whole week involve carrying and attempting to process guilt regarding their role and choices concerning their kids. Struggling to balance their needs with those of their children. Struggling to discipline, connect with, understand, and in some cases, just like our kids through the storms, trials and phases of life is harrowing. Parenting guilt is a special kind. We simply can’t get it right most of the time, and our children will experience pain, disappointment and sadness because of things we do and neglect to do. But this is what teaches them that we are all human. Even, maybe especially, our parents. Provided we are not cruel, neglectful or abusive, perhaps we need to realize that this is an advantage to the people we are nurturing. Perhaps there is no better gift than that of resilience and awareness that life just isn’t fair and we’re all beautifully broken. Our children will know disappointment and anger because of us first, and Love does not weaken with this reality. Seeing us falter and flail is how they learn to do the same.
These were some of dozens of conversations about shame, guilt, and mental health that have bubbled from my heart and fallen out of my lips or through my fingertips this week. One of my many mentors sent a rather confronting message to “get over it” and do great things. It was delivered with Love and the words were gentle and devoid of judgment so I did not feel scolded, just pensive.
My neurological therapist is trying to undo 40 years of fire in my belly being fueled by feelings of inadequacy and shame. We are both viscerally aware that my shame and self-loathing have been the fuel for most of my achievements. I am not ready to stop dining with the demon of shame, as she has served me so well and pushed me to prove my worth to… well, everyone I suppose.
A recent and undeniably self-indulgent trip to the Dominican Republic exposed me to four days of self-refection and bonding with powerful women, all from NYC where people seem to be tougher as a default for some reason. The retreat leader pointed out that always feeling guilty and responsible for things is actually a form of narcissism. That clanger stuck, and I carry it along with the heavy guilt I’m actively choosing to still entertain.
What I am trying to say is pretty simple. Be a bit kinder to yourself, and don’t let your guilt own you, but embrace it as a guide, because that’s probably the only service it will provide either of us. Wallowing in it paralyses, denying it makes it manifest elsewhere if we do not acknowledge it I think.
I suspect that you’re struggling and riding waves of joy and heartache, as we all are. I am going to guess, if you read my words, you’re probably quite a sensitive soul, trying to find comfort and truth in a consistently confronting world. Maybe you aren’t. Maybe you’re fully Zen and already living your best life freed from the shackles of guilt and shame. If you are, I am always open to pointers and/or case studies on how any human might get to that point.
So. Feel the guilt and keep going. We aren’t perfect, and it is time we stopped thinking we need to be. Hugs.