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Turning Shame into a Sense of Worth

Forgiving Yourself
We all make mistakes. And the more complicated, ambiguous, and changeable the task - in other words, the more it resembles motherhood - the more mistakes we are bound to make. Most of them are little ones: forgetting to bring along snacks for a walk in the park, missing a meeting at the preschool, leaving a baby in a wet diaper for too long. But there isn't a parent alive who hasn't made at least one big mistake with a child, whether screaming and yelling, missing a safety hazard, or simply being too busy to really pay attention.

One of the hardest parts of raising children is watching ourselves make the same mistake over and over. It seems so unforgivable! But it takes time to change. There are four unavoidable stages in any kind of learning or personal growth, and we need to be easy on ourselves in the process. Let's suppose you've been snapping too harshly at your kids:

Stage 1, Unconscious Incompetence. You're not aware that there's a problem.

Stage 2, Conscious Incompetence. You realize you shouldn't be doing it, but you just can't stop yourself. This is by far the most uncomfortable stage.

Stage 3, Conscious Competence. The inclination to snap harshly still arises within your mind, but you catch it and do something different, like take a big breath and speak more calmly.

Stage 4, Unconscious Competence. The tendency doesn't even arise. Sometimes it's even hard to remember that you used to act in a different way.

The fact that change takes a while doesn't make you a bad parent. Errors come with the territory of raising a family, they are unavoidable, you are trying to correct them, and you deserve to be forgiven for them. If something is bothering you, you could talk about it with someone who knows you well as a mother - like your partner, good friend, or your own mom - and then ask that person for forgiveness. You can also forgive yourself, using the essential steps of self-forgiveness, below.

Steps for Self-Forgiveness

  1. Name the thing that you feel guilty or ashamed about.
  2. Reflect on the total situation, including your part in it, and sort out in your mind what you are legitimately responsible for. Separate out the rest as beyond anyone's reasonable control/ bad luck, or the responsibility of others. Regret may be warranted for those pieces of the puzzle, but not self-criticism, shame, or remorse.
  3. Take complete personal responsibility for what is appropriate. Notice any emotions that come with the sense of responsibility, such as sadness, relief, guilt, embarrassment, or shame. Let yourself truly feel them for a bit. When it seems right, let them go, using the techniques you've learned.
  4. Resolve to yourself what you will do about the parts you are responsible for. Sincerely decide how you will acknowledge your responsibility to others, make amends, or act differently in the future.
  5. Now. let in a sense of forgiveness for yourself. You've taken responsibility for your part, you've felt bad about it, you've figured out what you can do, and it's all right to move on. In your mind, you can tell yourself things like I am forgiven for___ / or You are forgiven for____ , or / I forgive myself for____. You could imagine your children or partner forgiving you. You might imagine that a nurturing being of great integrity - perhaps a specific person such as your mother or a kind of guardian angel - understands everything that has happened and forgives you completely. Or, if this is meaningful to you, you could ask for God's forgiveness and allow that grace to fill your heart.


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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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