4 Ways Special Need Parents Can Cultivate Shame Resilience & Increase Emotional Well-Being
Living life as a special need parent is challenging. We find ourselves in unique situations often working to protect ourselves and others from the negative experiences associated with having special children. Unfortunately, living by the universal rule that typical is "good" and atypical is "bad," can leave special need parents feeling anxious and isolated.
Worse yet, special need parents can experience increased levels of shame. Dr. Brené Brown defines shame as the "intensely painful experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." Not only does living according to the belief that only “typical” is good or worthy, we start to experience feelings of sadness, isolation and a lack of belonging.
Perhaps for you it plays out like it has in my life recently. Since I'd had a long week at work, I decided to brave the daycare scene and take the kiddos while I stayed near and finished up on work. While it was anxiety producing to bring my special needs daughter, I thought it was worth a try to see if she could engage with other kids without issue. About an hour after dropping her off I was contacted and informed my daughter was acting out. I wasn't surprised and came over immediately. I was greeted by being given a note to sign to acknowledge all my daughter's misbehaviors. In addition, the daycare providers did not talk to me. When I found my daughter, she was missing a brace, which is needed for her to walk. I was provided with little help as I searched desperately.
I walked away feeling intense shame, disappointed I had "made the mistake" of bringing her to the daycare center. I felt heartbroken my daughter doesn't know how to communicate more effectively than to grab at other children, and I felt disconnected from others who could not speak to me empathetically about the unique experience of being a special momma.
For many special need parents, this is not an uncommon experience. It could occur at any locale where there is interaction with others. It could be any socially inappropriate behavior such as hair pulling, stimming behaviors, tantrums, communication challenges, hyperactivity, etc. Regardless, the truth is lots of parents struggle. It's true that society struggles to manage with the uniqueness of our children and many are challenged to show empathy to parents when their children are "misbehaving." Many people choose to sit in judgment. However, if we can learn shame resilience and self-compassion, we might be able to reduce the negative emotions associated with special need parenting and increase feelings of connection and joy.
Shame and Disconnection
In my personal experience, the greatest risk of living a shame based life is disconnection and lack of belonging. Shame feeds off secrecy; by remaining silent about the experience of shame we set ourselves up for disconnection leaving us vulnerable to depressive symptoms. Humans are wired for connection. We look to others to form nourishing bonds. Shame can impact connection by causing us to believe we are unworthy of love and belonging, causing fear, blame, and isolation.
What does life look like with shame resilience?
While we cannot avoid experiencing shame, we can become shame resilient. When we choose to engage in shame resilience techniques, we can begin to live a life from a place of connection with empathy and self-compassion. We can learn to appreciate that while our experiences are atypical, we are not alone in the world. Struggle is a universal truth, but we can do it together.
4 WAYS TO CULTIVATE SHAME RESILIENCE
Brown (2018) states "shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy - the real antidote to shame." If you are anything like me you might be saying to yourself, "sounds nice and fluffy, how do I do it?" Let's walk through it together. The 4 ways to cultivate shame resilience are recognizing shame and understanding its triggers, practicing critical awareness, reaching out, and speaking shame.
1. Recognizing Shame and Understanding Its Triggers:
Recognizing shame means we have to be able to identify when we are experiencing it. For many it's the feeling of anxiety when walking into a store knowing your child might have a melt down or watching other children at the park run around playfully, knowing your child cannot do the same. It's the experience of feeling different and as a result, less than. The first step of cultivating shame resilience is understanding your individual triggers and being mindful of the physical changes in your body in that moment.
2. Practicing Critical Awareness:
Next is practicing critical awareness; acknowledging when you are feeling shame and isolation. It is not unexpected to feel detached and alone when we are in shame. We may feel as if we are the only one or possibly questioning "why me?” While this might be an understandable and normal reaction, it's important to appreciate that struggle is a human experience common to all, regardless of the situation.
3. Reaching Out:
Reaching out is the courageous act of finding others to connect with and forcing shame out of hiding. Shame feeds off silence. But reaching out to others allows for the opportunity to be heard and be held with empathy. This could mean finding a tribe or group of fellow travelers who can hear the struggle without judgment or attempts to fix the pain for you, those who understand the experience of parenting an atypical child. It could also be one close person like a partner or friend who gets it. Regardless, reaching out provides an opportunity for connection versus disconnection.
4. Speaking Shame:
Finally, speaking shame is critical to cultivating shame resilience. By speaking about shame to ourselves and others, we diminish its power. For me this means allowing myself to say aloud "you're in a shame cyclone right now." While the feeling might not immediately pass, it allows me to embrace self-compassion and identify my need for empathy in the moment.
While the reality of life is we will not be free of shame, we can become resilient to its power, and as a result, ease the feelings of sadness. Achieving shame resilience is a practice. Be gentle with yourself in the process and know you absolutely can experience emotional well-being even through the most challenging times as a special need parent.
If you find yourself in need of support along the journey, Bridger Peaks Counseling can help. Go to BozemanCounseling.org to schedule an appointment today.
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