Step 5: Letting Go of Shame – Self-Parenting in the Age of COVID-19

Photo by Gage Walker on Unsplash

Step 5: Learned to share our self-parenting challenges with others without self-recrimination or shame.

The 12 Steps to Self-Parenting for Adult Children

Shame is a burn that eats you from the inside. Shame makes you feel helpless while it devours you. For many, shame is an old feeling, a feeling brought into the present by their feelings and responses to COVID-19. 

The Yellow Rubber Glove

I’m the clinical facilitator of a therapeutic improv group for veterans who have both addiction and PTSD, and who live in a long-term residential treatment facility where I consult. In this age of COVID-19 we are conducting our improv group via Zoom, which provides my vets with a window into my home where they met my new dog, a five-year-old rescue. 

Last week she decided to make an appearance during our pre-group chat. She jumped up on her hind legs and began to tap my chest with her slender paws, kissing my face. I beamed, scratched her behind her ears, she panted. Love. My vets smiled but were curious. They have a house therapy dog and some even have their own personal therapy dogs. They knew I didn’t have a dog, until now. 

“Is she new?” they asked, almost in unison. 

“Yes” I answered, “part of my self-care,” offering that she was no substitute for my being with them in person; they laughed. 

“Her coming to me this morning was a major step as she had avoided me most of yesterday, I added. The vets on the call were quiet, all eyes on me. 

Now that I really had their attention, I decided to use this moment to reinforce some of the clinical work we had been doing. I shared that she had a medical condition that needed care. The day before, as I was about to treat her, she literally freaked out. I wondered if her panic was due to seeing a yellow rubber glove and associating this glove with my touching the painful  part of her body she was protecting. Her eyes fixed on this glove; she froze, then ran. 

“I think seeing the yellow rubber glove was a trauma trigger for her.” I added, “But I’m not sure, just like when you are triggered, you’re not always sure what it was that prompted the fear you felt.” 

Shame Is Re-traumatizing

Our past does intrude upon the present, whether it was yesterday or thirty years ago. During times of intense stress, which currently we are all experiencing, it is important to remind yourself that part of what you are feeling, thinking, even experiencing, now, can be the result of past experiences, yes, just like for my dog. Our brains are all wired to detect threats and to immediately react to protect ourselves whether the threat has just occurred and is in front of us or is part of our past brought into the present by our inner alarm signaling danger.  

Everyone in this, our new normal, is making real life-and-death decisions due to COVID-19, providing a ripe environment to re-experience old wounds. So, if you grew up in a home where you felt little support and concluded you had to go it alone, your compulsive self-reliance (Step 3) is now being pushed into high gear, triggering memories of the past where you fought against being overwhelmed. Socially isolating may be re-traumatizing you now in the present by triggering the feelings of panic you had as a child when perhaps you had to hide to be safe.

What fuels your re-traumatization is the use of old coping mechanisms, such as again blaming yourself, calling yourself weak, seeing yourself as somehow deficient, calling yourself stupid, just as you did as a child. The result is feeling shame. Shame is self-blame and self-punishment. Shame is being the problem instead of dealing with it. These feelings of shame are much more challenging than what my dog was experiencing, which was fear and avoidance. 

Don’t you deserve better?

Healing Moments

As painful as it is to relive old traumas, doing so represents an opening to grow. 

In these painful moments when the past is felt in the present, there is an opportunity to have a healing moment. Yes, in pain there can be a gift. 

You can use these moments where your inner child is speaking to you, sharing with you what life was like for you then, to understand and release yourself from part of the pain of your past.  Instead of feeling ashamed for the child who you were, you can grow in compassion for your adult self. So if you wet the bed as a child, realize that this may have been less frightening than getting out of bed to go to the bathroom and facing what was happening in your family during the middle of the night; that decision makes wetting the bed a smart choice. If you ate to soothe the panic you felt, realize that this may have been a better choice than asking for comfort from a parent who couldn’t give it.

Rather than berating yourself for being a child when you were a child, you can use these moments of remembrance to examine how you protected yourself then. Using this lens, you can notice how you are currently protecting yourself, asking yourself what is working, what is not working, (Step 4), and freeing yourself from the burden of shame so you can build new ways to take care of yourself today. 

Exercise for Today 

You can begin by recognizing your need for reassurance, and giving yourself hope and self-love, now, instead of feeling shameful for being needy! 

First, begin by parsing out your feelings. Tell yourself: that was then, this is now. This will decrease the intensity of what you are feeling now by focusing your emotions on what is in the present, instead of layering it with what emotional memories pulled up from the past.

Next, do one of my favorite things to do in painful moments like this: give yourself a one-armed hug while you tell yourself It will be OK. I love to do this because it is private, it’s just me and me, and it’s normal; everyone touches themselves, except now for our faces (which I’m still working on learning). And simple action works because it is comforting and reassuring. 

If you want to really do self-care, also say That was then, this is now. Now I am an adult who can take care of myself. (By the way, this works well to do in public, not that we’re in public much, but at some point, we all will be.) 

When you are alone, you can also enhance this process of reducing your shame by grabbing a pillow, hugging it, naming this pain of the past, allowing yourself to have this as a past memory. But don’t stop there. Use this remembrance as a springboard to be sweet to yourself as you reassure yourself that yes, this happened, and you survived it, by taking care of yourself, even though you were a child. Giving yourself recognition for your accomplishments helps to reduce your shame! 

Make a note in your journal about how this works for you, and feel free to share it on my new Facebook Group, Self-Parenting in the Age of COVID, which I invite you to join by clicking on the link. There you can post your struggles and solutions as we create community. And, I invite you to share the blogs and posts you find on the Facebook Group by tagging those you know and care about, whether they are in recovery or just loved by you. 

This is the fifth of a twelve-part series based on The 12 Steps to Self-Parenting. More tips are available on my blog, The Powerful Woman.net, and in my books: Healing Trauma Through Self-Parenting, The 12 Steps to Self-Parenting for Adult Children, and The Resilient Woman. Learn more Learn more about my work as a consulting psychologist and speaker at www.patriciaogorman.com.

Giving Your Inner Child a Holiday Present in 7 Easy Steps

Giving Your Inner Child a Holiday Present in 7 Easy Steps

If this holiday season is like most for you, it probably involves running around taking care of everyone else but yourself. This may involve you feeling the pressure to send a card to everyone you know with a personalized note, even if you have forgotten their birthday; buying gifts for the key members of your that indicate how much you value them, even if they have been awful to you all year; hosting a series of dinner or parties where everything is cooked and baked by you, even if pizza and takeout are regularly featured in your weekly dinners. 

Sound familiar?

Holidays and Your Inner Child

The reason why you feel you must plug the emotional gaps for those you know and those who you care about may have more to do with early messages in childhood where what was prized, and perhaps modeled, was taking care of everyone else before you take care of yourself. These messages, instructions, rules to live by are stored within us in what I’ll call your inner child, the remembered part of your childhood that can take over, guiding your actions, particularly in emotionally fraught times like Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve. 

No, I’m not going to say stick it to everything that is planned and is expected of you, and then change everything at literally the last moment (even thought that may not be a bad idea). But I will show you how you can soothe and moderate these expectations by taking care of yourself. 

Sound impossible? 

Use Your Senses to Center Yourself

You are a human being with feelings and senses. Yes, you’re busy, but you can use your senses to help slow yourself down and help you feel more in control. Also called mindfulness, this paying attention to your senses can help soothe you and center you. And who knows, It may even make you more productive.

Try these seven simple tips:

  • Feel the bubbles made by the dish soap in the endless washing up you will be doing. Play with them, enjoy their smoothness and sense of play. 
  • See the clouds scudding in the sky, the moon winking at you, the trees moving in the breeze. Take a deep breath as you walk, or run, through your day, and appreciate the beauty before you. 
  • Smell and savor the delicious aromas of the cakes and cookies you are baking, or the roast you have seasoned. 
  • Sense the warmth of the sun, or the tingle of snowflakes, or the crystal clearness of raindrops as you hurry through your shopping. 
  • Say positive things to yourself:
  • These bubbles are fun.
  • I love my own cooking.
  • I deserve to see this beauty.
  • I’m doing well here. 
  • This looks great. 
  • I love the smell of the air just before it snows.
  • Own the power you have to bring joy to others by seeing and allowing yourself to “take in” the delight on the faces of those you love.
  • Note the rewards you want to give yourself:
  • Like the bubbles? How about a bubble bath on a regular basis?
  • Like noticing what you’re doing well? Consider writing your own personal daily affirmations. Yes, take the ten seconds it will require to do this regularly—you’re worth it.

My suggestions will take only seconds and not delay you in any task, but they will make whatever you are doing more enjoyable by making space for you, your needs, while you are being so productive in taking care of everyone else. 

Know that when you create even these thin slivers, these tiny moments where you are in touch with yourself, you are feeding your inner child by recognizing your needs and your wants, a skill that may not have been taught to you as a child. 

Making Changes—Developing Resilience

We can all learn from out stressful experiences. When we do this, it’s called resilience. Want to be resilient in the New Year? Then, consider changing a few things: 

  • Play with pairing down the list of what you are pushing yourself to do. Want to experiment this holiday season?  
    • For example, consider sending out a Valentine’s card, with a letter that goes to those you care about. Or better yet, send out an email blast for St. Patrick’s Day with an update on you and yours. Not only will you have more time and energy in the coming months than you do now, but think how special your recipients will feel to be remembered when it isn’t Christmas or their birthday.
  • Make simple changes. They will be the easiest to do and will be more likely to stick.
    • Take two golden minutes for yourself as you begin and end your day. Enjoy your coffee or tea as you gaze out the window. Do some gentle neck rolls, set an intention of something you’d like to do for you today, like take the stairs instead of the elevator, or pack some grapes or an apple for a snack at work. 
  • Write a good New Year’s resolution. Feel you can’t change course midstream, and want to wait for a really good New Year’s resolution? Take notes on all the things you’d like to do differently next year. Yes, literally write them down in your journal. 
    • For example, make next Christmas’s dinner a family potluck where you’re only making the turkey or other main course. Collect these ideas for the next eleven months and you’ll set yourself up for a less stress-filled and more balanced holiday celebration next year.

Write and let me know how you took care of yourself …

Wishing you a more peaceful holiday season. 

Patricia O’Gorman, PhD, is a speaker, a consulting psychologist in upstate New York, and the author of nine books, including The Girly Thoughts 10 Day Detox Plan and The Resilient Woman: Mastering the 7 Steps to Personal Power: 12 Steps to Self-Parenting. She is a regular blogger at The Powerful Woman. Learn more at patriciaogorman.com.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Using Your Resilience When the Holidays Threaten to Be Not So Happy

By Patricia O’Gorman, PhD,
author of: The Resilient Woman: Mastering the 7 Steps to Personal Power (HCI, 2013)

Order: Amazon / Barnes & Noble

It’s the holidays . . . so be happy

Isn’t that what all the songs, the stories, the TV specials tell us? Happy is even the first or second sentiment of all of the messages we receive on everything from our postage stamps to the music in elevators: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Eid Greetings, Happy New Year.

The message is clear—have fun. There is such hype about feeling good, giving gifts, and, of course, receiving gifts. But the happiness is all very idealized.

We see holiday perfection depicted over and over again wherever we look. Family gatherings are portrayed as loving; members are connected, respectful, and understanding. Meals looking delicious, and we can almost smell them through the pages of our favorite magazines. And we all want to enjoy those we love; but that’s not always how it works, particularly in some families—like my family of origin, and maybe yours.

. . . except for those other families

Yes, this is what we all want, but for some families, these times are less than happy. Family alcoholism, divorce, job loss, or death of a loved one all create stress that seems out-of-place during these idealized joyful times, making them somehow even more painful.

So what can you do? Yes, you can get super-stressed, very depressed, and just get through it. Or you can use your resilience to actually enjoy the holidays. In fact, the holidays can even help you develop conscious resilience, as they certainly give you enough adverse circumstances to bump up against! But you can make choices to do something about them.

What you can do . . .

1.  Actively love your inner child. You deserve no less.

  • Hold the hand of your inner child, the part of you that remembers and feels the memories and the feelings of the past.
  • Find time to be with this part of who you are, whether this means:
    • finding time to have a good cry, or
    • looking at those cute baby pictures and appreciate how that adorable child is still alive within you.

2.  Set helpful limits (for more information on this, read the second step in my newest book, The Resilient Woman) to actively care for yourself during this time:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Don’t overindulge with alcohol.
  • Allow yourself some treats, but don’t feel you need to jump into the dessert table with both hands, and God forbid, both feet.
  • Say “no” as a complete sentence when asked to do something that is not right for you.
  • Say “yes” to doing something you want to do, even if it is not part of your family tradition.

3.  Create new traditions that make more sense to the adult you are now:

  • Buy yourself a present instead of being stressed about not getting what you really want.
  • Take the pressure off. Tell yourself you don’t need to:
    • make the perfect meal, or
    • send out cards to everyone you know, or
    • have the perfect tree.
  • Get other family members involved:
    • ask family and friends to not bring alcohol to your family gathering, or
    • ask everyone to bring a dish instead of trying to make all the food yourself, or
    • decide when to spend quiet time with those you love, rather than feeling you need to say “yes” to all invitations.

What does this all add up to? Giving yourself permission to try some new behaviors by putting your resilience into action.

Challenge those girly thoughts that tell you to please others, and try to take care of yourself. Now that’s a real gift!

For more tips on dealing with the holidays if you come from a family that had those painful struggles (particularly over the holidays, like the tree being thrown out the window), listen to Dan and I speak about my book, 12 Steps to Self-Parenting on Beyond50Radio.com, a radio show for baby boomers …12.6 @ 3pm ET. To join our live conversation call — (724) 444-7444. Dial 59781# when asked for talk show ID. Or listen to it online.

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Patricia O’Gorman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Albany, and Saranac Lake, New York, is noted for her work on women, trauma, and substance abuse and for her warm, inspiring, and funny presentations that make complex issues accessible and even fun. She has served as a consultant to organizations in preventative and clinical strategic planning including Lifescape Solutions in Delray Beach, Florida. Dr. O’Gorman is a cofounder of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, and she has held positions ranging from clinical director of a child welfare agency to interim director of a crime victims organization to director of the division of prevention for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Learn more at http://patriciaogorman.com

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Christmas and Perfume

If ever there was a season celebrating resilience it is the Christmas Season.  As women, this season represents a virtual treasure trove of elements around which we build our resilience, because our resilience is built around our response to stress; and this is the season of stress, both good stress and the other kind.

During this holiday time we find ourselves playing our own version of three-dimensional chess.  We are navigating our commitments to our children, creating a happy holiday season for them whether they are three and still believing in Santa Claus, or twenty-three and moving out on their own.  We feel both our love and the pull of obligations, both stated and expected, to our family.  This is compounded by needing to make the decision of who to spend the actual Christmas Eve or Christmas Day with, or whether to create the magic of the holiday within our home, figuring out how to do the cooking, shopping, decorating, and still for many of us, keep our day job.  We need our friends who tend to be less available, as we are, due to being equally stressed out, running, laughing, and at times stuttering instead of speaking.

And this is compounded by our image of what this important holiday season is supposed to contain, an image not formed by Hallmark, or by the endless ads on TV, but an image rooted far deeper in our psyche, an image formed in our own childhood, an image we revisit, one formed by needs and desires remembering them as fulfilled leaving a smile on our face, or memories of want and need that that are still full of pain.

It is this last element that makes this season so challenging, the fact that we are present to this season not just as a forty-five year old, but also as a five year old.  That we are navigating not just a list of expectations of those who we love who surround us, but also we are carrying those needs and wants from the child within us.

This is why it is so important to find a way to give to ourselves this season.  Not just an actual gift, which may not be a bad idea, but also an inner gift, one of personal perspective — a gift of gratitude, of appreciation for all the resources that we have, of respect for all that we do, and of promise, a promise to do something special just for us, whether this is taking one single moment to put on a dab of perfume that we like, to remind ourselves as we gently waft it’s aroma throughout the day, that we indeed are special, that we can take care of ourselves, to a commitment to use our considerable resources, our resilience, to begin to take better care of ourselves.  Now that would truly make this a merrier Christmas.

By Patricia O’Gorman, Ph.D.

Author of

The Resilient Woman:  Mastering the 7 Steps to Personal Power (publication date 3/5/13)

pre-order available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble