How to Blunt the Gnarly Horns of Shame

I love the gnarlier aspects of being human and shame is certainly one of them. If you’re reading this – kudos to you, you’ve more courage than most. We all know the hot rush of shame – that hideous sensation of being caught out, exposed, revealed in all our flaws – even if we’ve done nothing wrong.

Before I dive in, let me just clarify the difference between shame and guilt.

Shame is: ‘there is something wrong with me that I feel bad about’.

Guilt is: ‘I have done something wrong and I wish I hadn’t.’

Guilt is adaptive – you can change your behaviour. Shame is entrenched and, contrary to common belief, leads to violence, depression, anxiety and half-lived lives. [If you want to know more about this, look up the amazing research of Brene Brown of the University of Houston, Texas].

Let me tell you a story …

Some time ago my youngest son (6) went for a sleepover. Not just any sleepover, this one was super special. He’d been waiting weeks for it. He was attending the birthday party of a little girl he loves dearly. It was his first sleepover and our first night without kids for about 4 years. We dropped him off with his little overnight bag and all was well in the world.

Three hours later, in the middle of a delicious intimate dinner, I received a call. Could I please come and pick him up. He has nits (headlice). He can’t stay.

Nits – those dreaded beasties that lurk in every primary school, whilst everyone pretends they’re not there (oddly similar to shame). Humans have lived with them for thousands of years. In our family, we privately accept the odd episode of nits as an inevitable interruption in primary school life. I understand that some people find them very disturbing. One’s child having nits is a terrible taboo in many parenting circles.

We went to collect him, bless his innocent little heart. It was awkward. The sleepover mum had seen him scratching his head and had whipped the nit comb out in front of the other children. She had discovered a single nit and announced her findings to all. The poor boy stared fixedly at the ground as we walked out. His shoulders were scrunched up around his ears, his arms hugged his body, trying to hold in tears. In the car he refused to talk about it. All he would say was that he was sad.

A raft of feelings flooded my body – outrage, tenderness, heartbreak, righteousness, irritation and yes, some shame. This shaming episode had occurred because we were not vigilant enough. We were bad parents and now our bad parenting had shamed my son at an event he had been looking forward to for weeks, an event that meant everything to him. Bad, bad parents.

Happily, I recognised my own shame and my son’s. Shame, un-named, can wreak havoc. But, as Brene Brown says – if you wrap words around it, it can’t survive.

The nit party

The next day we threw a nit party. Yes, we actually had a nit party! I made a nit cake (just like a normal cake but with a different name). We celebrated the first time anyone in the family had ever been sent home with nits. My son, at first baffled, soon giggled and then really enjoyed himself. We sang ‘happy nit day to us’ to the tune of Happy Birthday and ate the nit cake. It was a hilarious and beautiful thing.

The very best thing about the party was that his shame (and mine) evaporated. The shaming episode had been pulled out of the darkness and paraded around at our nit party, to be celebrated as a life experience. Yes, I had residual guilt. That’s OK, it helped us change our behaviour as parents. We became a little more vigilant about checking for and removing any stray beasties after that.

My son has no bad feelings about the event whatsoever. In fact, when he talks about the sleepover he laughs because he remembers the nit party. This is a very different outcome to what would have happened if we’d all sat in our shame. My partner’s response was to desire revenge of some kind. Mine was to berate myself for bad parenting (which always leads to more bad parenting) and feel unable to look the sleepover mum in the eye. My son’s shame response was to completely shut down.

You can imagine what might have followed these responses. None of it would have been healthy, connecting or fun! All of it was short-circuited by the marvellous nit party.

Shining a light on shame

It’s not possible or even desirable to throw a party for every shaming event in our lives. But we can coax shame out of the darkness of our beings (and our children’s) and let the light shine through it.

We can name it.

We can celebrate our supposed failures – after all they show we’re participating and learning.

We can allow ourselves to experience the adaptive feeling of guilt so that we can modify our behaviour to be more in line with our values.

And we can remember that humour is a most remarkable medicine that works particularly effectively with shame.

For many of us, shame is attached to far more traumatic events and circumstances than the discovery of a single nit at a sleepover. Starting with small things is a gentle way of exploring bringing light to those things we feel shame around. Since the nit party, I have been able to face a more deeply buried shame from my childhood and release the hold it has had on me; an unexpected and delightful nit party side-effect! Blunting the gnarly horns of shame doesn’t have to be painful!

If you enjoyed this, please share with your networks. I’d love to hear your thoughts on guilt, shame and nit parties …

And if you’d love to move through and beyond the shame and guilt that are holding you back from creating your life exactly as you would love it to be, try my simple, powerful video process. It’s free and it’s potent!

6 Comments

  • Lisa

    Reply Reply May 15, 2017

    That is really cool and great learning for me. I like the side effect the nit party had on releasing some older shame for u. Nit party is so original and so you! Also i really like the photos that went with this story x thank u for sharing and showing a different way!

    • darling_lover

      Reply Reply May 15, 2017

      Hi Lisa!! It was a good side effect and one I hadn’t expected. And I’m glad you like the photos. x

  • Nell

    Reply Reply May 22, 2017

    What a wonderful thing to do, Pollyanna. I will keep the nit party (also called shame-dissolving-into-laughter party) in my arsenal of parenting skills to use as required.

    • darling_lover

      Reply Reply May 22, 2017

      Ha ha, that’s awesome Nell!

  • Jane little

    Reply Reply July 30, 2017

    I am so grateful, and appreciative for this whole magnificent article Pollyanna. Golden. I can now address a friend who I fxxxed up with and have been perplexed about talking with.

    • darling_lover

      Reply Reply July 31, 2017

      Yay! I’m so glad. 🙂

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