A Crying Shame

There’s a big difference between shame and guilt. 

Guilt is the feeling you get when you did something wrong, or perceived you did something wrong, whereas shame is a feeling that your whole self is wrong – a belief that you’re a bad person, or unworthy as an individual. 

Now, guilt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be a useful emotion designed to help us right a wrong – to help us realign with our values. That is, provided, we’re not feeling, or made to feel guilty for the wrong reasons. Shame, however, is rarely a useful emotion. It is rooted in low self-esteem. It is very much a product of having a fixed mindset.

I believe there are two responses – broadly speaking – from those who suffer from such a deep-seated shame. On the one hand is the individual who refuses to ever admit to being guilty – who often uses pride as a shield for fear of having to feel any shame. 

On the other hand is the individual who lives with excessive guilt – who believes that no apology or action can ever bring them back to feeling good about themselves because they don’t believe they’re capable of being a better person. The problem for the latter, speaking from experience, is the tendency for shame to consume you whenever guilt arises. 

A couple of weeks ago something happened that brought up a great deal of guilt for my wife and I. It happened on Father’s day (of all days) when our 5 month old – whom we had placed on the centre of our bed – rolled over several times (something we had never seen him do) right off the side and, with some force, smacked his head. 

Now, I’ll interject at this point to save you any heart ache and tell you he’s completely fine. Of course we didn’t know that at the time. There were no signs of concussion, although it took him about 15 minutes to stop crying. We also found a small bump, so we decided to take him to the hospital to have him checked. 

While we waited to see the doctor, my wife and I calmed down. It was evident that our boy was himself – smiling and laughing away. No signs of distress or concussion. When we finally saw the doctor he decided it was best to “err on the side of caution” and do a CT scan. He also wanted to keep him overnight for observation to be safe. We agreed despite feeling confident they wouldn’t find anything. 

Unfortunately we were wrong.

What they found was a small hairline fracture on the side of his skull. He’d hit the floor much harder than we thought. The doctor told us he’d called in a neurosurgeon to get his opinion and determine the next course of action. In the mean time they put our boy on a drip and demanded we stop feeding him in case they had to take him into surgery.

To say that the next few hours were difficult is to say nothing. When we finally talked to the neurosurgeon, he explained they were no signs of bleeding. Still, he wanted to do one more scan the following day to be absolutely sure. 

To cut a long story short, the second scan showed no signs of bleeding either. We followed up a couple of weeks later and the doctor was happy there were no signs of brain damage. The skull, thank god, had done its job. 

The only thing we were left dealing with was own guilt at having failed to protect our boy.

Which raises the question, how should you process it? Should you refuse to acknowledge your mistakes? Tell yourself it’s ok? That these things happen? Or should you tell yourself off? Should you tell yourself that you’re a terrible parent?

This is where I believe the distinction between shame and guilt is important. Why I believe it’s important to ask yourself which of the two you’re actually feeling and why.

In years gone by, such an incident would have thrown me into a spiral. I would have seen what happened as a confirmation that I am a bad parent, instead of one who simply made a mistake. I’m pleased to report that didn’t happen. Honestly, aside from our failure in the first instance, I’m proud of how we responded. We did everything right by our son after the fact. 

Still, the fact remains, we made a cardinal parenting mistake. One that we need to learn from. However part of learning any lesson is learning to forgive yourself. Shame prevents you from doing that. 

It was this point I made to my wife during those difficult few hours while we waited to hear from the neurosurgeon. I told her we need to be honest with ourselves. We need to acknowledge the fact that we made a mistake. However we cannot change what happened. We must also forgive ourselves. 

I told her it’s important we don’t allow our guilt to tell us we are bad parents. that we don’t let that guilt turn to shame. While it is one thing to learn from guilt – to use that to make you a better person. It is a whole other thing to let guilt tell you you’re not capable of being a better person. 

It’s failing to see that, that really is a crying shame.


(Thanks for reading everyone! I’m sorry I missed you the last couple of weeks. Between this and work, I decided that a blogging break was in order. I’m glad I took one. Anyway, what are your thoughts on shame versus guilt? Do you have any stories of your own? As always, I’d love to hear from you.)

***

You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com

30 thoughts on “A Crying Shame

  • I trust you and your wife have forgiven yourselves. These things happen. They really do — roll off the bed, trip and fall… They’re called accidents.
    It’s a crying shame indeed to not forgive yourselves.
    Thanks for sharing your story. You’re a good parent. I can tell.
    Sending you good vibes.

    Liked by 3 people

  • I am so sorry that this happened and I am glad and happy that your son is ok!

    Your response and your reflection of the incident demonstrates great maturity and I learned from you to distinguish between guilt and shame.

    Glad you have walked away from this experience all ok and having gained something important too. Take care!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi Ab – thank you. Really appreciate your words. I used to group guilt and shame together without thinking much about it. Thinking back I realise that what I usually felt was more shame than guilt. This has certainly helped clarify my thinking. Wishing you well 🙏

      Liked by 2 people

  • “I am a bad parent, instead of one who simply made a mistake.“

    This is a very true point so many parents need to know! These kinds of things happen, and they happen to more of us than we might talk about!

    Glad that things worked out well!

    Liked by 3 people

  • Love how you detailed the process you went through emotionally as you attended to the physical demands. Having raised 5 kids, I wished I had been better able to get where you’re at more quickly! Mistakes happen and, fortunately, parents are real people who make a significant number of them. But we also love big and fiercely fight to undo any damage we inadvertently cause. Shame never helps. Thank you for such an honest discussion of shame and guilt💕

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you Ingrid. I’ve not been beating myself up too much. In that respect it’s been pleasing because I know in years gone by I would have been much harder on myself – which would have only made anything worse. Wishing you well 🙏

      Liked by 1 person

  • Having experienced this myself when my eldest was about the same age. I understand the emotional turmoil both you and your wife went through. Admitting that you made mistake is important, understanding that you cannot do anything to change what happened is crucial to moving past it and forgiving yourselves is the only way to to heal.

    Liked by 3 people

  • I’m sorry to hear about your little one’s accident, but glad to know all is well. As a mom of two now adult sons, I’ve been through a number of mishaps with them over the years, so I understand how you may be feeling.
    In my opinion, shame has never been a good motivator to change behavior. It just makes a person feel bad and doesn’t hold space for any learning or growth. Guilt, on the other hand does.
    Thanks for openness in sharing your story. Wishing you and your family well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you firefly. I appreciate your comments. Yes shame does the opposite of changing behaviour. It simply keeps us rooted in the last. Guilt however can be a positive motivator. Wishing you and yours the best too. 🙏🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  • I am so happy your son is fine. Being a parent isn’t easy. Talk about so many moments of guilt! My children have fallen, gotten cuts and bruises, and have gotten sick from eating too many sweets. The worst thing that happened, which I felt guilty for for years, was my daughter leaving the house when she was about 18 months old. I was a single parent at the time. I was outside mowing my lawn while she was asleep in her playpen. I checked on her periodically to make sure she was still asleep. Then during one of the checks, I couldn’t find her anywhere in the house. I had left the front door open but locked the storm door (I was using the back door). Well, the storm door was unlocked. I was terrified. I went through my neighborhood screaming out her name and couldn’t find her. Right when I was about to give up, a couple drove up and asked if I was looking for a little girl. She was in the car. She had climbed out of her playpen (which I didn’t know she could do), unlocked the storm door and made her way across the street to another apartment complex within minutes. The couple made me feel like trash. They told me I was an unfit mother (like I wasn’t already feeling like one) and that they should’ve called the police and had her taken away. As I said, I was guilty for years. I will say that immediately after the even happened, I felt very shameful. I actually began to believe I wasn’t a good mom. I’m so thankful for other mothers who assured me that I was a great mom. I really could’ve been a parent of an abducted child or had my child taken from me for neglect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your ordeal Shaun – I can only imagine how you must have felt. Undoubtedly that pep talk was given to make those individuals feel superior without helping you in the slightest. When these things happen we don’t need help with guilt from others. Quite the opposite. I’m glad you were able to move past it. It sounds like it was an honest mistake too. The important thing is that she was ok! I’m also pleased you had good people around you to tell you what you needed to hear. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Wishing you the very best 🙏

      Liked by 1 person

  • What an honest and powerful self-reflection. I’m happy to hear that your son is okay… human skulls are powerful protectors of our brain! I learned a lot from this about guilt and shame, and how internalizing shame can be detrimental to one’s growth. Thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  • Im glad your son is okay. I usually don’t feel shame on my own, but if someone blames me for something I already feel guilty about, or taunts me about it, then I shut down into shame and self loathing. I’m working on accepting that I’m a good person who makes mistakes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Blaming and shaming helps no one. We all fuck up from time to time. The important thing is to learn from our mistakes, not dwell on them. I like to think in terms of trying to become a better person rather than seeing myself as good or bad.

      Like

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