“People who feel shame and self-judgement are more likely to blame others for their moral failures.”
So says, Kristin Neff in her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Neff is a professor at the University of Texas, and has spent over a decade studying the effects of having or not having self-compassion. She says that anger allows a temporary feeling of power, “covering up feelings of weakness stemming from personal failure.”
Neff sees men are particularly “vulnerable to this pattern” because of the way our culture creates an idealised image of men as strong and infallible. Faced with their own shortcomings, some men feel inadequacy and shame.
But women are far from immune. I’ve been there, done that, blamed everyone else in sight for my inadequacies. It hurts more than owning them, far more.
This post is part of today’s 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion’s initiative Building From Bullying, which specifically addresses ways we can find solutions, rather than kneejerk reactions. Compassion for those who bully is often in short supply, but it is actually essential if we are to ever resolve this problem.
When our daughters were little, my husband got a new job that meant moving 500 miles. I was delighted because the move was back to a city we’d previously lived in and loved. However, for various complex reasons, for the first two months after our move, my husband was working away almost all the time and I was alone with two little children who missed their dad.
It was usually worst at bedtime, with our younger daughter sometimes so distressed, that by the time I’d got her calmed enough to sleep, I felt like crying myself.
Then, thinking (hoping) the children were settled, I would be in the kitchen doing the washing up and our three-year-old would appear giggling at the door. I’d take her back to bed, but a few minutes later she’d return. This went on a few times each night, until I lost patience. From her earliest days, she had not been easy to settle to sleep. I had attended a sleep clinic; I had read books on how to get your baby to sleep and on how to develop a bedtime routine for your toddler. Nothing worked, and, as far as bedtimes went, I felt that I’d failed. I was inadequate as a mother.
I also blamed her. I’d done everything I could – apart from have any compassion for myself of course, but I didn’t realise back then that that could make a difference. In blaming her, I yelled at my beautiful, lovely child. I yelled at the child I’d waited years for, the child I loved intensely, the child I never ever wanted to harm. I roared at her to get back to bed.
It’s a long time ago now, and I can’t remember how many nights this happened – but it was more than once. I also can’t remember the details of afterwards – in my mind I see an image of her running back to bed. I would have gone to her, because I never could stand to think of her falling asleep upset at my anger. Once, I remember sitting on her bed as she said sorry for getting up and running around when I felt so tired. I don’t remember my reply.
I do remember though, that after a few nights, I realised that in some ways I was almost enjoying the feeling of anger – the adrenaline rush and the sense of power. This worried me. A lot.
On the site CompassionPower, Steven Stosny writes, “resentment and anger have amphetamine and analgesic effects – they provide an immediate surge of energy and numbing of pain.” Like Neff, Stosny knows what he’s talking about. He has been working for many years with those who commit domestic violence – and his programs have a very high success rate.
Fortunately, although my anger initially felt cathartic, I didn’t want to direct it at my small daughter. Stosny adds, “you will soon crash from the surge of vigor and confidence into self-doubt and diminished energy. And that’s just the physiological response to amphetamine; it does not include the added depressive effects of doing something while you’re resentful or angry that you are later ashamed of, like hurting people you love.”
I knew nothing of Stosny’s work back then. But I knew that my outbursts of anger were always followed by feelings of shame and depression that far outweighed any temporary satisfaction. I also knew deep down that it truly wasn’t my daughter’s fault.
The short-term outcome was that I started to sit quietly with my daughter until she’d calmed or often until she was asleep. The long-term outcomes were that I began reading parenting books to understand my children better and I took up meditation and mindful inquiry processes. I learned to question the beliefs that led to my angry outbursts, and they came less often. It’s still work-in-progress, but it’s been a long time since I felt anything close to rage.
Although Stosny works with a wide range of people, what he says about anger and parenting is particularly interesting and illuminating. Stosny explains that with any new endeavour, we feel inadequate at first. It follows then that new parents will feel inadequate. (As will parents at any new stage, which is most of us, much of the time.) He says that moving beyond inadequacy into competence is one of the greatest feelings we can have.
If we simply accept this, then we can use our feelings of inadequacy as a signal to learn more or get the support we need. It’s a statement about our lack of experience, not about us.
Stosny says we become angry at our children when we confuse feelings of inadequacy with failure. This is, of course, exactly what I did.
It is unfortunate that parents are generally expected to know what to do, and any admission of difficulty is likely to be met with judgement rather than compassion. When parents compete with each other to prove that our way is best, we are causing each other terrible pain and that inevitably gets passed on to our children. When I yelled at my three-year-old, my mind was filled with images of people disapproving, and of remembered criticisms: “It’s your fault. You should be firmer, clearer. You should show her who is boss. You should be kinder. You should, you should…” A few magazine articles even sneaked in to join the throng of criticism, particularly one I’d read saying that if you weren’t prepared to have your baby in your bed, you shouldn’t be a parent but get a cat instead.
None of that helped me to be kinder to my daughter. All of it left me feeling shame, guilt and despair.
I don’t know of one parent who hasn’t at some time yelled at their child. In their book When Anger Hurts Your Kids (by McKay, Fanning, Paleg and Landis) the authors point out that all parents sometimes feel angry, with many still resorting to spanking.
There’s a popular idea in our culture that the way to deal with bullies is to show them zero tolerance, and to punish them. This line of thinking assumes that somehow bullies are different to the rest of us; yet as I think this essay illustrates, we are all capable of the feelings and behaviour that count as bullying. As Susan Buttenweiser reports in Brain, Child magazine, Zero tolerance programs have a poor success rate – precisely because of their punitive and aggressive tactics. You can’t fight bullying by bullying, no matter how much many people would like to! Buttenweiser writes that restorative practices that address underlying causes of bullying are much more likely to be successful, and long term “positive development of the school community” is most effective of all. In other words, instead of blaming bullies, we all need to work to make friends with our inner bully, to release our shame and with that our bullying tendencies. And we need to teach bullies to do the same.
If this seems daunting (and it sometimes does to me) we can draw inspiration from those who already deal with bullying with compassion. When Maya Van Wagenen was bullied at school, her mother gave her a book from the fifties, filled with advice on how to dress and how to become popular. She started following the advice, reaching out to kids in groups she felt afraid of, and generally being friendly, whilst standing up for herself. She became the most popular girl in school, and her journal Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, is now a best seller.
When Lindy West, who writes at Jezebel, was repeatedly trolled, she wrote about it. She wrote about how upsetting it was to receive abuse, and she also wrote: They are human beings—and I don’t believe that their attempts to dehumanize me can be counteracted by dehumanizing them. The only thing that fights dehumanization is increased humanization. A man who had previously trolled her, sent her an email in which he said, among other things: “I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.”
You can read the rest of the email, and what happened when Lindy later reached out to this man and forgave him in her article What Happened When I Confronted my Cruelest Troll
Even that short snippet gives insight into his mind, and illustrates the points that Neff and Stosny make. Writing about a person who blames, Neff also says that, “by blaming the other, he can also feel like a victim… which in turn justifies his righteous anger. It’s a vicious cycle that can lead to truly vicious behavior.”
Had Lindy West reacted by shaming this man, he would have retreated further into shame and anger. Equally importantly, it would not have strengthened her.
We don’t actually help those who are bullied by reinforcing beliefs in victim-hood. It makes far more sense to encourage victims to find self-compassion, and to enable us to find strength to stand up for ourselves. Yes, I am including myself – I’ve been on the receiving end of bullying: as a child, a teacher was truly vicious to me. (Among other things, he called me ugly, pinged matches at me from a toy cannon and set off a firework beneath my chair.) Later, at college, a tutor behaved in a similar – though less severe – way. My first long-term boyfriend hit me more than once. For a long time, I believed that I was worthless, and that belief made me in turn more susceptible to feeling shame and yelling at my daughter.
There is no instant answer. There is no magic anti-bullying bullet. It takes time and it takes willingness to confront our deepest shame. But when we do, magic happens.
There is no Anti-bullying bullet. It takes time and willingness to face our shame. When we do, magic happens.Tweet
This post is part for 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, a massive link-up, when over 1000 bloggers are writing for compassion. This month we are focusing on Building From Bullying. To read more posts, or to add your own, click on the blue button below. To accommodate all time zones, the link-up is open from 12 noon GMT 19th March – 12 noon GMT 21st March.
Besides me, your hosts are:
American Indian Mom, Finding Ninee The Quiet Muse, Chronically Sick Manic Mother, Just Gene’o, Driftwood Gardens, Getting Literal, The Meaning of Me, Head Heart Health, Considerings, Paper,Pen,Pad 1000Speak
1000 Voices Speak For Compassion is a blogging initiative started in response to violence and alienation in our world. If you would to be part of a movement for loving change, join our Facebook Group, like our Facebook Page, or look for our posts on Twitter with the hashtag #1000Speak.