Parent Guilt Is Natural. Parent Shame Is Toxic.
Understanding the difference — and cutting yourself some slack — is crucial to being there for yourself and your family.
Despite your best intentions as a parent, your toddler is going to have half a doughnut for dinner one night because their screeching is unbearable when you try to get them to eat anything else. At some point, you’re going to pinch their finger by mistake fastening them into their car seat. You’re going to tune out their rambling story because you’re too exhausted to decipher it, or you’ll yell at them and threaten punishment when they’re being impossible. You’re going to think, “I can’t f–ing stand this kid,” one day, because all parents do. Then, you’re probably going to feel guilty.
No parent is perfect. You’re going to make mistakes. And a little guilt — or regret might be a better word — about those mistakes can make you a better parent. Making a mistake is part of learning what works and what doesn’t, and they can make parents resolve to do better. But if guilt is internalized as negative thoughts about who you are rather than what you did, it’s better described as shame, which is a much more damaging emotion.
The difference in guilt versus shame is important to understand. Feeling “healthy” guilt is related to an action, whereas shame turns feeling bad about that action into harmful thoughts such as, I must be a bad parent; I suck at this, for example, says psychologist Menije Boduryan-Turner, Psy.D., who treats mostly parents in her Woodland Hills, California practice.
For another example, the difference between regret and shame is thinking, “I feel bad for feeling like I hated my child, but those occasional thoughts are normal,” as opposed to “What kind of monster human hates his own kid, even for a minute?”
“Simply put, shame is a feeling or thought that makes people feel bad for who they are at their core,” says Boston psychotherapist John C. Carr, LICSW and author of Becoming a Dad: The First Three Years.
Feeding the flames of shame include beliefs such as, “I am worthless,” “It’s all my fault,” and “I don’t deserve love/forgiveness/friends/good things,” Carr says. Those beliefs often burst through the surface as defensiveness, withdrawal, anger, or irritability, and an unwillingness to ask for forgiveness or accept responsibility, he continues.
Over time, shame has a destructive effect on self-esteem and self-worth, says Moe Gelbart, Ph.D., a psychologist in Torrance, California. Shame typically is left alone to fester because, by virtue, it’s something people want to hide from others.
“People who feel shame are unlikely to talk to someone about it; you feel you’re a bad person, so you keep it to yourself,” Gelbart says. “That leads to depression and anxiety if it’s turned inwards, or anger if it’s turned outward.”
Keeping shame to oneself isn’t necessarily a conscious decision. Many parents who internalize shame don’t realize they’re harboring those damaging thought patterns, which makes their effects worse. Feelings of shame are almost never the “presenting problem,” or the issue that prompts someone to see a therapist, Boduryan-Turner says. More commonly, parents will come in for help with anxiety or depression. But, she says, some digging often unearths shame beneath the surface.
The Particular Pain of Shame for Men
A common reason men seek therapy is for help with anger issues, says John Petersen, Psy.D., a psychologist in South Bend, Indiana.
“There’s always an underlying problem, however, which in most cases is fear or hurt,” Petersen says. “Some men don’t have any idea there’s a vulnerable emotion under there. They just think, ‘I get angry, that’s just the way I am.’”
A common scenario, Petersen says, is a guy who, let’s say, gets angry at his wife and says she’s impossible to please. When they fight, he might get frustrated and walk away, unaware of deeper emotions he has buried. With therapy, he might realize that his failure to please his partner makes him feel inadequate and, ultimately, powerless, which are much tougher feelings to face.
“Deep down, he’s afraid he can’t make her happy, and that scares him,” Petersen says. “He feels he’s failing and that she might leave.”
Inadequacy, Petersen adds, is a feeling that is often intertwined with shame, particularly for men.
“Shame is the feeling that we’re falling short of an internalized standard or belief we have for ourselves,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s based on something we feel we’ve done or an aspect of ourselves that we don’t want people to know about, for fear of judgement.”
A related common source of shame that men aren’t likely to acknowledge, even to themselves, is not being able to provide for his family, Petersen says. It’s a holdover masculine stereotype that has lingered for some men, particularly those who come from more conservative or traditional families.
If a man is laid off from his job, he usually won’t say “I feel inept as a man,” even if that’s how he feels deep down, Petersen says. Instead, he’ll say, “I’m so stressed; this sucks.’”
For many men, their sense of wellbeing comes from achievements, money, and “report cards telling them they’re good,” Gelbart says. This idea is fading as gender stereotypes are dismantled, he says. But still, in group therapy sessions he has held, Gelbart says, many men have no idea what to talk about if they’re told they can talk about anything but their jobs or careers.
“It’s a generalization, but many men are slow to identify vulnerable emotions because it’s not masculine,” Petersen says. “Those men think that to be a good man, it’s only socially acceptable to feel sad, glad, or frustrated.”
This is just one example of how rigid, gender-based expectations can harm families. “There is a double standard where women generally have more permission to talk about their feelings than men do,” Boduryan-Turner says. “Dads don’t get to talk about how scared they feel.”
The Deep Origins of Shame
Why do some men feel shame and others don’t? People who are sensitive to rejection and other peoples’ opinions are more likely to feel shame. Shame’s origins have a lot to do with your upbringing. Being shamed as a child can instill the idea that you are inherently unworthy or somehow “lacking.”
“People who have been excessively shamed know no other way,” Carr says. “These men can have a really hard time accepting the notion that they are lovable, forgivable, and worthy. A large part of the work of therapy is to become more aware and accepting of their worthiness.”
In addition to feeling like you don’t live up to societal and family expectations, many people set unrealistic goals for themselves. Parents often have conscious and unconscious goals based on their relationships with their own parents, meaning they strive to replicate or reverse those aspects of parenting with their own kids, Petersen says.
“If a parent spanked you or yelled at you, for example, you might vow to never do either to your own child. Or you might want to repeat positive things your parents did for you,” he says. “When we fall short at those goals, shame can creep in. And obviously, [since we spend the most time with them], we share our worst selves with the ones we love.”
How Shame Affects How You Parent
If parents don’t address the shame they’re harboring, it could become a vicious cycle that continues for generations, Gelbart says. If a child triggers a feeling of shame in a parent, it can be easier, on an emotional level, to get angry at the child and get him or her to do something different rather than dealing with the feeling of shame.
“That’s externalizing shame and putting the blame on the child,” he says. “Men often take shame and externalize it into blame, and that perpetuates the problem as well as involves the children.”
Typically, men are more likely than women to talk about their feelings in relation to someone else, saying for example, “This person makes me feel a certain way,” rather than owning the feeling, Gelbart says.
“But you need to take responsibility for how you feel, and begin to unravel it so you can talk about it,” Gelbart says. “We teach people to say, ‘I feel…’ in therapy sessions, and the next words have to be something about themselves. You can’t follow with ‘I feel that you…’ That’s not a feeling, that’s an attack or a judgment.”
“I feel you are not a nice person” isn’t actually a “feeling,” he explains. Many men need to do some digging to uncover the feeling beneath that judgement, which could be sadness or hurt.
“Once they start understanding that, it’s a release, and they start to feel better,” Gelbart says.
Boduryan-Turner says she assumed her patients who are parents would’ve given themselves a break during the unprecedented last few years, when most of us spent the first half of the year at home with their families almost 24/7. But a new kind of shame is something she saw a lot. Even with the daily stress dial turned up to 11, many parents expect perfection from themselves and were ashamed when they didn’t live up to that standard. Perfect parenting was harder than ever with so many more opportunities to do or say things to your kid — or your partner — that you might feel guilty about later.
In addition, having two parents at home exacerbated a problem that sometimes comes up for fathers in families where Mom is the primary caregiver, Petersen says. Dad might have found that with everyone together, the mother-child relationship dominates, so the ways he usually parents when he’s alone with the kids might not be as effective. Faced with this weird imbalance, men might feel inadequate and start worrying that Mom will lose confidence in his abilities as a father. Plus, families rarely get a break from each other when quarantining, which can intensify issues.
How to Break the Spiral of Parenting Shame
Shame is like a cancer, Boduryan-Turner says. It’s destructive and can spread. To overcome it, it’s important for men first to process how they might have been subjected to shame-triggering messages growing up.
“I tell clients they need to take care of themselves and change the narrative: You can cry and you can ask for help,” she says. “Your job is not to have all the answers but to do the work you need to do to grow and show up as a better parent.”
A lot of the work involves changing how you perceive things, because the way you see things will determine how you feel more than what your family is doing or saying, Gelbart says.
“You can see the glass half-full or half-empty; the glass doesn’t have to change,” he says. “If people can take a deeper look and change how they perceive something, they can begin to feel different.”
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