I started this post in February 2014. I figured out where it was going today.
Back then, I was thinking about the internal stories that I return to over and over. The stuff I just can’t let go–the stories I tell myself about myself all the time. I might have been reading Brene Brown’s ideas about shame and the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is a reasonable reaction when you have done something wrong; shame is the unreasonable belief that you ARE wrong.
Here’s an example of a story I keep carrying around. When I was a kid, I loved to wrap Christmas packages. I wrapped presents for our family, for my grandparents, for my aunt and uncle. My dad taught me how to tie fancy bows and finish the ends of the package with no overlap. So when I was about 13, my mom heard about a group at the mall that was raising money for some charity by wrapping presents. She signed me up for a shift and I was so excited! I wrapped many gifts beautifully that day, but there was this one package that got the best of me. A girl about my age and her mom brought me a large, not quite square box and asked me to wrap it for her boyfriend. I chose a simple gold foil, then I started on a double bow with contrasting colors of satin ribbon. Only the pre-cut ribbon didn’t quite fit around the awkward box. I didn’t want to cut new lengths because the volunteer coordinator had given me a very serious orientation about how this was for charity and we could not waste ribbon. So I taped the ribbon on the bottom of the box even though it didn’t quite meet–there was a messy gap of about an inch in the center on the bottom of the package. Everything you could see was perfect, but the bottom was messy. And I hadn’t wasted ribbon. Right choice? I thought it was the best path.
Well, five minutes later, the mother and daughter came back with the package and complained to the volunteer coordinator that the bottom was so ugly and the ribbon didn’t meet. I was mortified. I had been found out. When they were asked who had wrapped the gift for them, the mother looked around the room and pointed to me, “She did it.” When the volunteer brought it back to me to fix, I apologized and said that I hadn’t wanted to cut more ribbon. She looked at me like I was an idiot. She said, “We can’t CHARGE people for a mess like this!”
So yeah. I finished out my shift in red-faced shame and never went back. I still feel shame when I think about it. Because I was doing my best but I messed it up. I was a 13 yr old kid faced with the desire to do it right but working under the “don’t waste ribbon” edict. I opted for the wrong choice. And when it was pointed out as wrong, I fixed it. Fixing the package with a perfect ribbon took care of the guilt for the mistake. But the shame? That’s what I’m still carrying.
Now let’s return from 1982, shall we? Back to a year ago when I first started thinking about the stories that linger. Given that I have stories I can’t seem to let go of or reframe, I asked myself, “What is the theme of these stories? The continual story I’m telling myself about myself?”
Immediately, the answer popped into my head: “This is all my fault.”
This is all my fault.
Flash forward a year to today, when I was having my regularly scheduled crying jag in the preschool parking lot. Carlos has been sent home from school two days this week for hitting, biting, climbing on tables, screaming at another kid because he thinks it’s funny, throwing stuff….you name it. But by the time I pick him up, he a chirpy little angel who says, “I love you, Mommy!” Even on the days when he got to stay at school, I received a two-page note of every transgression. And Vivi didn’t get to go on her class field trip yesterday or today because she was acting up in class earlier in the week and didn’t get herself back to green. Today, as I sat there in the parking lot, just knowing that my kid was going to get kicked out of daycare and wondering what to do next–what to do to FIX THIS–I realized that this phase in my kids’ lives was triggering a lot of shame in my own mind.
And that’s when the words popped into my brain and heart simultaneously: This is all my fault.
THAT’S what has been turning my face red every time I answer the phone and it’s daycare calling. If only I were a better mother, my kids wouldn’t be having any problems in school. If only I didn’t work. Or if I took them to yoga. Do they get enough sleep? Does this milk have enough protein in it? Do other kids wear socks voluntarily? If I were a good mother, my kids would keep their shoes on.
Whoa, Nellie. I felt just like that 13 year old kid, watching as the woman’s finger stretched towards me: “She did it.”
The tears I’ve been trying to tamp down for weeks now came rushing out in the preschool parking lot. It’s not my fault. I’m worried over my kids because they’re my kids, but their actions aren’t my fault. I want them to walk the paths of their lives with joy in their steps and no rocks in their shoes. But they’re the ones who have to do the walking. I can’t carry them.
As I cried it out and reminded myself that I’m not a bad mother and these kids might even maybe somehow be a teensy bit lucky to have me as a mother, the fear and shame began to melt away. Vivi will figure this out by living with the natural consequences of her actions. Carlos’ language will catch up with his heart. We’ll all learn how to deal.
Do you have stories that you can’t let go? What’s the theme to those stories that you tell yourself about yourself?