I messed up this week. I said something stupid to my daughter. At the time, I thought I had to help her by giving her my opinion, even though I knew she didn’t want it. In an anxious spasm, I blurted out criticism, just when she was acutely vulnerable. She stared at me, mouth agape, and fled . She wouldn’t speak to me for days.
I was moody and upset for days as well. I felt defensive, like I wanted to explain myself and justify why I wasn’t so wrong. I felt misunderstood. I felt unfairly maligned. I could have sung my own theme song, about how I am never appreciated.
It is hard to be wrong. There is a fine reason why people avoid admitting their mistakes. I felt wretched. My chest hurt. My defensive counter-attack sat right at the back of my throat. So why am I sharing this embarrassing story with you? I'm hoping we can learn from it.
Being wrong and feeling heartfelt sorry is an act of strength. It requires the ability to keep your head up, even when you have made a mistake. In admitting a grievous error, you have to not crumble inside from the weight of the shame. We all flee from shame, because it is so painful. To feel ashamed feels like dying inside. Shame makes us feel deeply inadequate and flawed. What’s worse, being ashamed doesn’t really help anyone else feel better. Feeling ashamed is deeply self-focused; consider the phrase "You should feel ashamed of yourself." Shame is about you feeling bad; guilt is about hurting others and wanting to make amends. My daughter didn’t need my shame. How would that help her feel better?
From my marriage therapy work, I know what people need when they feel hurt. A betrayed wife needs her husband to look her in eyes, to acknowledge his wrongdoing, and to wholeheartedly apologize. For the apology to really stick, the husband needs to express the ways his actions have hurt his wife, to feel pain about causing her pain, and to heartily promise to change. These are the elements of a full apology that heals relationships.
What usually stops the man (or woman) from being able to apologize is dread of his own shame. The shame that a man (or woman) feels when he hurts his partner is so deep, so acute, so gut-wrenching that most people will do anything to avoid it. However, then the couple remains forever stuck in their pattern: aggrieved angry wife who has been hurt who can't "let it go," and minimizing/avoidant husband who won't take responsibility and therefore can't change and heal the rift.
So, do I feel ashamed? Not really and here’s why: Everyone makes mistakes. There is no perfect mother. It is impossible to be a perfect mother, every day, every minute. I try really hard to give my girls what they need, but I am a flawed human being with my own limitations. In my favor, I love them fiercely, and I am always open to learn. I am willing to say, “Oh I’m sorry, I hear you and I will try harder”; that’s the best I can do.
So I don’t feel ashamed. I do feel guilt, which is my conscience telling me that I hurt my girl. I can handle it. I am grateful to have a relationship with my daughter who will tell me why she’s upset and what she needs. Granted, I don’t always like it at the time. Sometimes I’m tired. Sometimes I feel put upon. Sometimes I want to proclaim loudly that I’m a plenty good mother compared to my mother, and other mothers too.
But you know. That’s not how I will grow. Being defensive won’t make me a better person. One thing that has helped me be less defensive is learning self-compassion. Over the years, I have worked to respond with care to my own distress. I try to talk to myself kindly when I am upset, the way I would speak to a dear friend. Instead of dismissing my own distress I try to say, “Yes, you are in pain now. I’m sorry you are hurting.” I understand also that suffering is universal, and that we all make mistakes because we are human. So, instead of calling myself a terrible mother, I say, “Well, you try hard. There is no perfect mother. We all fail, sometimes.”
It is this ability to be self-compassionate which helps me to be honest and take my lumps when I mess up. And by the way, I don’t do this perfectly either! But I try. The only path toward being a better person is to know when you mess up, so you can improve next time. Life is hard and we are all limited. Keep trying though.
There is no perfect mother.
There is no perfect father.
There is no perfect person.