Everything undone: Shame’s crippling legacy

Shame
/ʃeɪm/
A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.

So many of us carry around a full glass of the stuff:
It laps at our edges, overflows at the slightest knock
It eats away at our self-assurance
Nags at our inner peace
Smothers our hope.

This isn’t the shame you might feel after a particular action or course of events.
This is chronic shame: a state of existence in which you constantly tell yourself:
“I’m not good enough”.

Or just: “I’m not enough”.

When we make mistakes, shame serves a purpose.
It tells us to put things right.
It helps us to become better people.

But chronic shame has no purpose.
Chronic shame is destructive, exhausting, and futile.
Chronic shame damages us, and damages those around us.

It’s outward signs might be subtle:
“I should…”
“I ought…”
“I don’t _______ enough”
“I could do better at…”

There is nothing wrong with these statements.
But sometimes, they become a monologue from which we never break free.
We don’t give ourselves a break.
We don’t reward ourselves for our successes.
We just notice everything we have neglected.
Everywhere we have fallen short.
Everything undone.

Who I am
What I do
It’s not enough.

And the inner language of shame is much more damning
The negative self-talk that shame uses to keep our self in its prison.

“You’re terrible at that”
“You’re an imposter”
“You aren’t doing this well enough”
“Someone else would have done that so much better”
“You need to do more”
“You’re not good enough”

Obligation
(Unreal) expectation
Damnation

These are shame’s legacy.

And then

Anger
Frustration
Hurt

As we take our shame and project it onto another.

“I’m not good enough, so you will never be good enough either”
“I’m not enough, so you will never be enough either”

Shame sets impossible standards
Shame robs us
Of fulfilment
Of happiness
Of contentment

And then we feel shame about our shame.

Emptying that cup of shame is a lifetime’s work
Even when we become aware shame’s chatter
We don’t drop our guard for long before it creeps in again

But perhaps
Just one thought at a time
We can begin to silence shame

One negative thought
Noticed
Captured
And reframed
Is one step closer to living without chronic shame

Be kind to yourself:
Easy for me to say
Harder for you to do.

But small steps of self-kindness
Of noticing our own self-hardness
Might just break the habit of negativity
And prevent a full blown attack
Of chronic shame.

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The Parenting Retreat (or: how to be a good parent without wanting to hide in the loo)

I’ve hesitated about writing this post. I know I’m a good parent. I know our family life is fairly happy and secure. The danger of sharing good things about family life on social media is that we might give the false impression that all is perfect. My family life isn’t perfect. I’m not a perfect parent. Good, but not perfect. We have rows and slam doors and storm out and use bad words. “I’m sending you to the rubbish yard!” says my four year old to me when I upset him. I won’t share what I sometimes say to my husband when he, in turn, upsets me. It’s not pretty.

We’re not perfect. But this summer we got something right. This is our story.


It started in a meeting I had with my spiritual director in July. We talked about the birth of my youngest, a few weeks previously.  We talked about the exhaustion I had gone through in the months before her birth, and the ways in which our family resilience had been tested after. We talked about the past, and the future. My hopes for us, and for me. My ministry, my career, my parenting, my ambition. What was good and life-giving, and what was draining and stretching.  It was a good all-round emotional, spiritual and mental check up. And then, as we finished, she suggested the following:

That I seemed restless.
That I should try and notice that, and not respond to it.
That my maternity leave meant I had a great gift to offer my kids: my time and attention.
That perhaps I needed to put away my phone and my restlessness for the summer, and give myself entirely to my children.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love spending time with my kids. But I had usually managed to dilute it to a point where I could be half-present to them, with my mind half on something else: reading, or writing, or (if I’m honest) Facebook. What was being asked of me here was different. A commitment to be wholly present: not for a morning or even a week, but for two months. Two whole months of concentrated time with three under 5s who usually tested my mental and physical resilience on an hourly basis. I left that session of spiritual direction feeling like I’d been set up to fail.

But I made a start. The next morning I launched myself cheerfully into wooden train sets and playdough and snacks and outdoor games. By 11am I was on the verge of breakdown. There were tears – and not from the kids. Why was it so hard? It was something about their chaos and mess and noise. Or was it?

Parenting is a mirror says Jon Kabat-Zinn, that forces you to look at yourself. He argues that children provide the perfect opportunity for a prolonged and intense experience of mindful retreat that lasts about 18 years. If you’ve been on retreat, you know it’s tough. As the ‘stuff’ of life is stripped away, as you go deeper into silence and simplicity, you are forced to look inwards. To see yourself with all your props, your safety blankets and your masks taken away. And then you have to begin the tough inner work.

And that moment, as I sat on the sofa and trusted the DVD player to babysit the kids for half an hour, I realised that these two months would be a similar sort of retreat. In the simplicity of offering my kids my attention and my presence, I would have to deal with the complexity of my self that I had too easily run away from. Here was my crash course in mindful, meditative parenting. It wasn’t the kids and their chaos that was pushing me over the edge; it was that in the simplicity of time with them, I had to confront my own shadow side: my weakness, my anger, my failures, my intolerance and impatience. My imperfection. Here I was, forced to stare at myself reflected in the little shiny faces and dirty hands that were so eager for me. In the kids, I had found my mirror.

In the following days, I persevered in this parenting retreat. All the usual retreat experiences seemed to happen: I got angry, I got sad, I felt overwhelmed, bored, frustrated. And then I found peace. Peace in wooden train sets and nature walks. Peace in just being – living – alongside these joyfully simple little people.

And this is what I learned:

Just be present
The kids didn’t want great entertainment or expensive fun. They just wanted me. We played with paper and cardboard and leaves and stones and sand. Often, I just watched, asked questions, smiled. The simpler the better, and they surprised me with the breadth of their imagination and resourcefulness. We had days of fun with a cardboard box and a load of paint.

Don’t fight the inner work
Offering the kids my attentiveness and presence meant fewer distractions and more mindfulness. Breaking the habit of picking up my phone whenever they turned away from me, and instead staying focused on them, meant I had to confront some of my own inner bleakness. This is hard work, takes some getting used to, and gets worse before it gets better. But it left me feeling like I’d done some tough and rewarding inner work.

Make a list
The highlight of our days became the first task each day: making a list. I asked the kids what they wanted to do that day, we wrote it down, and we did it. It gave them space to think about what they really wanted to do (rather than spur-of-the-moment, tired decisions) and it meant I could steel myself for the messy stuff. It taught them about compromise, and about making space for each other. It also meant I could be honest with them about any jobs I had to do that would take me away from them, and often those jobs became a game in themselves.

Forget perfection
We still argued. There were still tantrums – sometimes the kids kicked off too. There was a lot of mess. A lot of things went unfinished. But letting go of perfection gave us a chance to talk about mess and anger and sadness. It gave us a chance to say sorry. It gave us permission to express ourselves, however badly, and avoid the daily build up of bad feeling that would otherwise lead to an ‘end of my tether’ moment.

Rest together
We did a lot, and I stopped using TV as a crutch or a childminder. But we also spent a lot of time under a blanket, watching Netflix together. It gave me space to breath, and it stopped the kids living at 100mph for the whole day. In fact, most days they chose a film to put on the ‘list’ of things to do that day. We rested together, and we built that time into the day.

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Now the summer is over. My oldest has started school. My middle one spends time at playgroup. And my youngest sleeps a lot. The house is eerily quiet, but echoing through it are the memories of a summer in which I found, surrendered and forgot myself, and became one human in a gang of four who, for a fleeting time, had no agenda but fun and laughter.

So for those who find parenting impossible, who sit and cry on the sofa while the kids watch DVDs, who collapse among the mess and are too exhausted to laugh anymore. To those who hide in the loo, and regret their shouting, and feel haunted by the guilt of parenting failures. To those who are bored, frustrated, and annoyed by their kids. That’s me too. But it can be different. It was for us.

In quietness and trust: Stop and see

This is the first in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Stop and see: Attentiveness

Attentiveness is an essential skill for the nurture of our inner lives.
It is in stopping – and seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, feeling – that we begin to sense God at work around us.
How much passes us by when we are caught up with worry and busyness and self-interest?

We might think that kids are always on the go.
We might say that they are the least attentive among humans.
But it’s not true.

Kids love to focus on the tiny detail of one particular thing, even if only for a moment.
Kids love attentiveness, because when we practice it with them, they have the whole of us for themselves: undistracted, focused, together.
Kids love to be with us more than anything, and a focus on something simple keeps us from wandering from them.

There are a million ways to practice attentiveness with children. These are things that work for us:

  • Nature walks:
    Counting how many insects we can see on one area of pavement
    Collecting different shades of green leaves
    Looking for butterflies and bees
    Learning about different flower names and colours – and then looking for similar ones and/or seeing what they smell like
    Looking for different types of trees (confession from this country girl: I had to buy a book to learn)
    Watching the squirrels scamper
    Splashing in puddles and watching the ripples
    Squelching through mud
    Collecting stones/sticks/pinecones of different shapes
    Looking for creatures in a pond
    Looking at seeds, at young plants, at old plants. Talking about how things grow and flourish and fade.
  • Lying in a dark room with a small torch, watching the shadows. Or with a small lamp that projects rainbows onto the ceiling. Or just in the dark. Listening to our breathing, whispering nothing of importance, singing.
  • Handing over my phone and letting the kids take photos. Noticing what they choose to photograph – where their attention is drawn – and asking about it (and ending up with 200 burst shots of our feet).
  • Listening to music, eyes closed, and sharing what pictures we can see in our minds.
  • Lighting a candle, sitting close, and watching the flame dance.
  • Stroking the dog together, talking about how we care for him and how we feel about him.
  • Building a wooden train track. Watching the trains weave around different formations.
  • Looking at pictures the kids have painted, talking about the colours and shapes and what they might be.

Attentiveness is prayer beyond words.
As we become attentive, we begin to notice that we are surrounded by God’s presence.
As we become attentive, we become more mindful of God’s hand on everything.
Attentiveness increases our gratitude and gives us glimpses of what God must be like, as we see the tiniest details of life are so intricate and endless.

Kids are highly skilled in attentiveness, if only we could notice it and learn from them.

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In quietness and trust: The spirituality of children

The spirituality of young children is phenomenal. They know simplicity, attentiveness, freedom and trust better than any adult. When I pray or meditate with my kids, it’s them leading me in practice. They teach me about about connectedness, self-awareness and God. They seem free of the baggage that I have gathered on my own journey – the stuff that stops me from really knowing and loving God and myself and others and the world.

I planned this series of posts thinking about how I am helping my kids to nurture their spiritual lives. But what I give here now, I offer as gifts that the kids have given me.

A couple of disclaimers:

First, my spirituality is Ignatian, Contemplative.
This is how I know God and understand life.
It’s deep.
It means that I value stillness and quiet (even though I’m not much good at either!)
I try and see a spiritual dimension to every person, place and experience.
I use my imagination in my spiritual life.
For me, words are not usually great currency in prayer.
This is not the only way to pray, but it’s mostly how I pray with my kids.

Secondly, let’s be realistic. My kids are one and three. No three year old is going to sit in still contemplation for more than a moment or so. No toddler is going to be completely immersed just because I ask her to be. Prayer and meditation with kids needs to be flexible and fluid. My kids are no saints. The following is what works for us on a good day, when we’re not tired, or hungry, or grumpy, or ill. There are four of us in this house – usually at least one of us is at least one of those things. Please don’t think we are the Von Trapp equivalent of the spiritual world. And yet I am constantly amazed by what does engage these little souls, and how deeply, when I let them take the lead and simply give them my attention.

With all of that in mind, here are some explorations of stuff we’ve tried:

In quietness and trust 1: Stop and see
In quietness and trust 2: Two simple questions
In quietness and trust 3: Storytelling
In quietness and trust 4: Sitting still (coming soon)

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