Compassion for the Shame-Baby

Yesterday, at a child’s 4th birthday party with red, blue and yellow balloons floating on the ceiling, big slices of chocolate cake on plates, piles of presents and 14 rambunctious children chasing each other around the kitchen, the mother of the birthday boy asked me to hold her 8-month old baby girl. We played pat-a-cake and peekaboo, and I revelled in the innocence of this small gopher-cheeked human being.

In the midst of the noise and chaos, she struggled to stay awake. I rocked back and forth, hummed a tuneless melody in the comforting way that I used when my own children were small. She eventually succumbed to sleep as a puppy does, simply closing her heavy eyelids and drifting off into dreamland.

While I felt grateful for this opportunity to revisit the world of little kids, I couldn’t help but compare it to the self-compassion work I’m engaged in myself at the mature age of 66 years. Just a few days ago, I talked with a supportive friend, and I told her about one of my Shadow Selves, “Critical Carla” who yammers at me when I make mistakes. “You don’t measure up!” “You’re a failure!” When Carla speaks to me like that, I become anxious and stressed and I see only my flaws.

Intellectually, I understand the purpose of Carla’s tirades. She’s trying to motivate me by correcting me so I’m safe from the rejection and disconnection that I fear will come with disappointing others and myself. I don’t necessarily feel her protection. Instead, I feel hurt and defensive instead of determined to be my best self. Worst of all, I feel alone.

When I make big mistakes, Critical Carla’s reactions can wreck havoc in my life. When she compares me to others whose lives seem idyllic and perfect, when she castigates me for my disorganized housekeeping skills, my frustration with my husband, my inability to balance my cheque book, or any other behaviour in which I feel “not good enough,” I feel powerless to stop her until I listen carefully and acknowledge her reason for protecting me.

Until I become mindful, the innocent child inside me continues to feel ashamed. She is, as self-compassion researcher Kirsten Neff says, a “shame-baby.” This baby needs my compassion and comfort whether it is warmth and reassurance, rocking, or whispers that say, “You’re okay just the way you are.” She needs to feel safe with me, that she is not alone, and that all human beings have moments when they feel flawed and imperfect. I can put my hand over her heart or cup her face so she feels rest easy in my arms.

Meet Judge Judy


On Tuesday, I drove to a retreat centre not far from my home city. I’d been planning sanctuary time for myself to simply stare out the window and listen to the quiet. I arrived just after 10 o’clock in the morning feeling rushed from preparing food for my family to eat in my absence and meals to bring with me. I’d spent the evening before packing clothes and books.

After arrival, it was walk time. I kicked through the autumn leaves collecting on the sidewalk, and remembered how much my Inner Child loves the fall. The cool wind invigorated me. Back inside, I found my little room at the end of a long hallway. I closed the door, unpacked, and settled into an armchair with my unopened journal in my lap. I sat for the long time in a blue rocker watching two gulls sailing on the wind above the trees outside the window.

In recent weeks, I’d been pushing myself to get my new website up, running, and with the help of a fabulous web designer, work out all the wrinkles. Now I wanted to compose something positive to send out into the world in my new blog. I wanted the piece to be simple and direct, something to affirm goodness and love. I wanted something to inspire my new readers.

When I opened my journal, a folded paper fluttered to the floor. After packing up my writing bag, I’d tucked it between the pages and forgotten about it. I had written, “Why do I get so caught up in judging my own writing?”

The whole point of the blog is to talk about writing to grow, the site theme. As I sat in the silence I wondered about the link between my self-judgment and my learning. Maybe a dialogue with judgment could help me. I’d used this writing technique before to connect with different parts of my personality. Not surprisingly, a conversation with one of my Shadow Girls began almost instantly.

These characters come to me with names to match their identities. I wrote a book about them, imagining their roles and purpose in my life. In our talks, I’ve learned some interesting things about myself. Their voices speak truths, when I read between the lines, and they hold opportunities for me to stretch and grow.

Today in the silence of my nun’s cell, I could hear one of  Inner Selves, Judge Judy, tapping on the window. She looks like one of the magpies I saw on my walk, dressed officially in her black and white robes and powdered wig. She whispers, “Tell the truth and nothing but the truth!” “The truth will set you free.”

On the page, Judge Judy asked me, “What have you got to say in your defense? What are your arguments and excuses?” She’s waiting for the right moment to leap to the Prosecution side and ask pointed questions. I have to admit, I’m a bit scared of her tactics. “You’re not a real writer. Your writing has no depth. You’re too serious. No doubt about it, your subjects are just too personal. You’re really going to write about that!? Are you really going to put that out there for the world to see? What’s going to happen when you hang out your dirty laundry?” And then the kicker, “Your writing is just too dark!”

I try using logic. What’s so awful about admitting I’m a judger? I’m not an ax murderer or a bank robber. Everybody makes judgments about one thing or another. Society does it. Politicians do it.

And she says, “You do it! In spades! You’re a self-judger of the worst kind.” That feels awful, like a punch in the stomach. “Stop it!” I write.

Judge Judy bangs her gavel down. “Quiet in the courtroom!”

Now I’m feeling ashamed, inadequate as a person and as a writer. And I feel a headache coming on. I’m feel like I want to run away and hide.

I turn my attention from my insufficiencies and decide to look deeper for some saving grace. Maybe I can find a shred of compassion for my unskilled reaction to her accusations. After all, this is a blog, not a court room.

Then I address myself, “You want to write a blog to connect to people? Right? You sure you want to share what you’ve learned from writing?

“Well, yeah. I guess so.” I’m not so sure anymore.

Judge Judy sums it all up, “You want to write about blame and judgment in a blog? Then you need a more loving response. You know, ask the mercy of the court.”

“Yes,” I say meekly, “In my heart, I’m a good person! I do have a light side, a kind side. And I want to be free from judgment.” And she says, “Then don’t run away. Turn toward the fear of exposing your vulnerabilities. Surrender.”

Judy likes to have the last word, and she says, rather kindly, “Find a little courage to overcome your fear. You’ve done it before. Be grateful for the creativity you use to expose your own masks and frailties. Others need reprieve too, especially when they feel alone in their own self-judgment.”

I look up from my journal and catch a glimpse of a seagull soaring on the wind outside. I turn back to the Judge on the page, “That’s a truth of mine, you know. To be with others when they feel alone.” But she’s gone and its okay. I’ve invited my truth into the room; that’s enough for me.

I close my eyes. Listen to the silence. I feel better now. Freer to listen to my heart and more open to what touches me.