“I’m so angry with myself” she tells me, her voice cracking with fury, “I should have checked it out long ago – but I had my mother’s reaction; ‘That’ll be expensive. Leave it to come right by itself’. You know how she was.
What makes me angry is that’s how I tell myself I’m not important enough to look after properly! It was bad enough when she did it but now I’m doing the same thing to myself? I should know better!”
I do know how her mother was. I also know that when she was small she tried her best to be perfect, to be good enough so that maybe her mother would manage to love her better. I know she used to beat herself up for any imperfection – she still does, for example, “I should know better!”.
“So what you’re saying, “ I respond with a sad smile, “is that taking months to get the help you needed shows you believe you are not important enough and that makes you angry with yourself. The fact that you did that shows you are not good enough – not getting it right yet. That makes you feel shame, so you behave in ways that imply you’re not important enough. That makes you get angry with yourself so you shame yourself again for believing and behaving as though you are not important enough. The anger and shame make you feel not good enough so you … are you getting me?”
She looks at me with big eyes for a frozen moment, really seeing the perpetuating cycle and then bursts out laughing, shaking her head.
No-one learns when they are shouted at, beaten or shamed.
When we are shouted at we feel threatened and scared so our brain helpfully shifts into ‘survival mode’. Danger sensors alert, chemicals prepare the body to fight off the danger, flee from it or freeze – like animals do in the wild. In those moments our rational brain is not really online. We are not calmly assessing what is being said and done and coming to thoughtful open-minded conclusions. No. We are nervous and jumpy and our brain is shouting, “RUN! Kill it! Just stand still, don’t move. Maybe it will go away.”
That’s why our child can’t hear or appreciate discipline in the heat of the moment. That’s why it’s best to wait until things are calm to do the disciplining. That’s why you can’t behave in the ways you’d like to when you are all het up. That’s why IT DOESN’T ACTUALLY HELP TO BEAT YOURSELF UP ABOUT IT AFTERWARDS!
It does the opposite of help.
In a volley of comments after my post my reader Olivia and I co-created the concept of the ‘Dalai Mama’ and I just love it. Thanks Olivia!
This is the mama or papa we all want to be. It’s the calm, wise, compassionate, all-knowing, all-accepting being we beat ourselves viciously with a stick to try to attain.
How weird are we? Can you imagine the Dalai Lama being trained to be who he is with beatings, threats and shame? Jon Kabbatz-Zin tells a story of how he once mentioned the hugely pervasive problem of low self-esteem in a conversation with the Dalai Lama and the Dalai Lama was surprised and saddened that such a thing could be.
Can you imagine that? Not even having the concept within you.
The truth is you are fine exactly as you are.
Really. The DL knows that.
Even with all the things you want to learn to do differently, all the ways you still hurt yourself and others, all the ways you keep yourself small.
You. Are. Just. Fine. As. You. Are.
We learn and then we can do differently. If we had nothing to learn what would be the point?
We each do the best we can with what we’ve got at every given moment. This is also true of our parents and anyone who did us harm.
I didn’t say our best is necessarily any good.
WE DO THE BEST WE CAN WITH WHAT WE KNOW AND WHAT WE’VE GOT AT EVERY MOMENT.
And it is good enough.
It makes no sense at all to try to scare or shame yourself or your kids into being ‘better’ than what you are. You are where you are. As you learn more you will do differently. Until then are you supposed to live in shame? That makes no sense to me. Go out there and learn proudly.
I’m not afraid of the Dalai Mama. I will turn to her for reassurance that all is as it needs to be in every given moment – even the things I REALLY wish were different.
How have you been beating yourself with the Dalai Mama?
I wish all of us were taught this from birth – but, better late than never. Pass this on to others who may benefit from knowing they are fine just as they are.