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Transforming Parental Shame and Guilt into Compassionate Growth

Updated: Jul 6

Most of us are familiar with feelings of guilt and shame, and it's safe to say that none of us enjoy experiencing them. But what do these emotions really mean, and why do they feel so overwhelming?

When we feel guilty or ashamed, what are we truly experiencing?

For me, these feelings manifest as a visceral contraction in my core, layered with somatic tension and harsh, judgmental thoughts. The inner dialogue often includes phrases like, "What's wrong with you?" or "How could you do that?" These thoughts carry tones of disgust, anger, and even hatred, as if an internal voice is attacking not just my actions but my very being. The intensity can be so unbearable that our system tries to block it out as quickly as possible.

It just hurts too much.

The issue with guilt and shame isn't just their unpleasantness. These emotions can prevent us from learning and growing from our mistakes. Instead of helping us recognize our shortcomings and areas for growth, they often lead to self-punishment or avoidance.

Think about a time when you felt you did something "wrong," triggering guilt and shame. As a family and child therapist and a parent, I frequently encounter parental guilt and shame. The more aware we become of our important role as parents, the more we learn about potential ways we could "damage and ruin our kids." We know we shouldn't yell, spank, lose our tempers, or be on our phones all the time. We should spend quality time with our kids, be patient, ensure they get the best nutrition and enough exercise, and limit screen time. But we should also avoid being helicopter parents, let them fail, and help them develop high self-esteem without over-praising. Add to that the demands of a full-time job, limited support, and the pressure to practice self-care, and it's no wonder many parents feel burnt out and exhausted.

Many parents feel guilty about "not being good parents" and "screwing their kids up."

Working with parents and being a parent of two children, I've found that transforming feelings of guilt and shame is crucial. Guilt feels so heavy that we typically respond in one of two ways: we either give in to it, becoming paralyzed by the pain and depression it causes, or we defy it, trying to get rid of it immediately through distraction or other means. Both approaches miss a great opportunity to explore and learn important things about ourselves. Instead, we should aim to transform guilt and shame into compassion and curiosity.

Consider parental guilt over being harsh with your kids. Maybe you yelled after asking nicely multiple times, scaring everyone, including yourself. After calming down, the first feelings that rush over you are guilt and shame as you recall your kids' scared faces. Giving in to or defying these feelings won't help you learn from what happened. Imagine instead taking a deep breath, distancing yourself from but not ignoring your guilty feelings. Remind yourself that you're human and capable of mistakes, both small and big. Acknowledge what you're doing right, have compassion for yourself, and forgive yourself. This opens a transformative door to curiosity.

With compassion and curiosity, you might ask, "Why and how did I get to that place?" You might realize you didn't get enough sleep, didn't eat properly, or overdid it at work and were burnt out. Now, you have somewhere to go. You can explore what went wrong without judgment and possibly come up with goals, solutions, or ideas to minimize (not necessarily eliminate) the chances of repeating the same pattern. This way, you have a chance not only to learn from your experience but also about yourself. Compassion and curiosity provide a real opportunity for growth, whereas feeling painfully guilty and merely promising yourself you'll never "do that again" is just an attempt to get rid of the pain without real possibility for change.

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