Replacing Shame with Compassion

If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.
~ Brené Brown

In honor of May being “Mental Health Awareness Month,” I share a deeply personal tribute to my mom, a brief eulogy I wrote of her challenging life. For decades, (especially as a little girl), I kept the story of my childhood private, not wanting anyone to judge me. Even my best friend from high school tells me, that to this day, she never knew of the terror I lived through because I never talked about it.

Silence, I mistakenly thought, kept me “safe.” That’s how it is with shame. We isolate for fear someone won’t like or accept us if they knew the truth. We can feel shame in many ways when our life doesn’t evolve as we hoped:

  • We didn’t make the team, get the promotion, find the “perfect mate,” or earn the salary that may or may not impress others.
  • We hit a financial crisis losing everything we worked so hard to achieve, raised a child who doesn’t appreciate us or who stings us in another way by making us look like a less-than-perfect parent (as if being a perfect parent is even possible).
  • Other times, shame may appear after a business failure, being lied about or falsely accused of something we didn’t do, a divorce, a rejection, being “ghosted” which has been trending lately, or moving through a health challenge that leaves us feeling broken.

The list goes on and on for the ways we shame ourselves.

To heal shame, you must acknowledge that it exists. Then, it helps to give yourself the same compassion you would give a child or a friend. Hold yourself in gentleness and find “safe” people with whom to share your pain, humiliation or embarrassment. Telling your story, versus keeping it hidden inside, is liberating. Learn more about self-compassion through the work of Dr. Kristin Neff.

For anyone who has a family member with a mental illness, may you be held in love and compassion for all the ways your own dignity may have been challenged by the judgments placed upon you and those you love—and the isolation and shame you may have endured when others stepped aside, instead of stood by your side, when you, too, needed support, kindness, empathy and acceptance. You can find additional resources at the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill(NAMI).

PASSAGES

My mother used to always tell me during a sad or difficult time in my life that “it is always darkest before the dawn.” Coincidentally, on the day she died, a therapist friend sent me this quote: “Death is not the extinguishing of the light. It is the putting out of the lamp because the dawn has come.” ~ Tagore.

EULOGY: The Value of a Life
(For Georgelyn “Georgie” Rae Kauranen, 3/25/06)

My mother’s death won’t make front page news. There won’t be more than a dozen people at her graveside service today. There won’t be eulogies written that honor her brilliance, courage or strength.

Yet, my mother’s journey has in many silent ways been more heroic than the ones we hear of from our mega athletes, politicians, movie stars, and other “rich and famous” people.

For more than two-thirds of her life, my mother lived with schizophrenia, a tragic mental illness that is devastating; it shames and terrifies family members, alienates friends, and isolates the inflicted one from caring support. The love a physically ill person with cancer or other life-threatening illness is given is not so freely offered to those with mental challenges. Many of us, me included at times, shun those who scare and overwhelm us with their psychotic frailties. And often, even when we are “there” for them, they don’t acknowledge us, making our ongoing efforts to love them seem meaningless and unimportant.

The unkempt and ill-mannered, apathetic and fidgety woman people often saw in her later years no way resembled the woman in high school voted “most likely to succeed.” My mom earned a scholarship to college in an era when women weren’t encouraged to succeed academically. I am told she was very pretty as a young girl, not the elderly woman with an oversized face puffed out from psych meds we saw these last few years. She had a keen mind and almost a sixth sense. She often knew when something was wrong before it was obvious. She loved children.

Tragically, four years later after marrying and giving birth to her first child, my brother, she began showing signs of mental illness. Only then she was incorrectly diagnosed and told to “chill out” as a new mother of an infant, my aunt told me. Three years later when I was born, her illness escalated but no one talked about her secret disease for the stigma of mental illness was too humiliating to discuss openly. Again, she was given tranquilizers.

I grew up with a “nervous” mother, who easily angered and was always on edge. None of her behavior was ever explained to me.

Fifteen years after my birth she tried to take her life with an overdose of sleeping pills, followed by years of shock treatments, several diagnoses that were incorrect, numerous trials with a variety of “psych meds” and hundreds of visits to psychiatric hospitals and emergency rooms. She had strength to withstand challenges beyond what any human being should have to endure.

Life with my mother was one post-traumatic stress event after another, until in later years she mellowed with age and drugs into a relaxed, glazed state that kept her calm and stable.

Sadly, I spent most of my life afraid of my mother and her psychotic rages. Her paranoia had her believing that Martians were talking to her through the TV screen, or that the devil was in the house, and she would scream with fright at such thoughts. I shriveled in my room, afraid to be near her.

I also spent a good deal of my life angry that she could not be the nurturing mother every child wants and deserves. It took me most of my adult years to heal those wounds and losses.

But in the end, when I sat on her bed holding her hand two weeks before she died, I thanked her for giving me the one gift that is often acquired only by living through such adversity: compassion. Her journey had a purpose. Her life had value.

She is no less of a person because her illness kept her isolated and alone.

Yesterday, at age 77, she died in a nursing home, cared for by my brother, my sister-in-law and a very loving nurse, April, who honored my mom’s life with love and dignity. She was at last, through a maze of ignorance, given an angel.

Georgie Kauranen deserves more than anyone I have ever known to rest in peace.

# # # #

Looking back, by sharing this story, I see now that my mom unknowingly did live her life dream of becoming a teacher, a teacher of empathy.

I hope by sharing this tribute to my mom’s life that you may in some way find—or practice offering—love and acceptance, versus criticism or judgment, to those who stand before you. We never know what another person or family is dealing with, and no one moves through life untouched by pain.

And sometimes we must first learn to be kind to ourselves by releasing shame, which blocks us from our innate birthright to experience joy.

With love and compassion,

Gail

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  • James Feudo says:

    I always appreciate your insights and inspiration. Thanks for another wonderful post!

    • Gail Kauranen Jones (“Coach Gail Jones”—Your worthiness expert) says:

      Thanks, James: And I appreciate the time you took to read this blog, one of my longer ones. I prepared a lifetime to deliver this one in the right and helpful context:) Blessings, Gail

  • Demi says:

    Excellent post, Gail. I couldn’t stop reading. Brené’s quote launched it perfectly and you followed through with vulnerability and compassion for others.

    • Gail Kauranen Jones (“Coach Gail Jones”—Your worthiness expert) says:

      Demi: Your words touched such a very deep place in my heart—and meant a lot coming from such a wise and talented writer/editor like you:) Gratefully, Gail

  • Doug Campbell says:

    Beautiful piece!
    And well written too… might I add!
    Bravo!
    I hope you get some good feedback from it! I know it was very hard for you to hit the “ send” button on this one! Doug

    • Gail Kauranen Jones (“Coach Gail Jones”—Your worthiness expert) says:

      Thanks, Doug: I appreciate your insight on what it took to create and deliver this post, and your kind words on the writing was the icing on the cake. This was definitely an act of service. In years past, I donated to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). This year, I jumped out of bed in the middle of the night, with a nudge to write this blog instead–to more directly serve those touched by mental illness with dignity. Gratefully, Gail

  • Kim says:

    A beautiful tribute and a wonderful post. Thank you.

    • Gail Kauranen Jones (“Coach Gail Jones”—Your worthiness expert) says:

      Thank you, Kim. I appreciate your kind words. Blessings, Gail

  • Elizabeth says:

    Gail – Wow. The tribute to your mom is so powerful and healing–for you to write and for others to read, especially if they can even remotely relate to your story (mine has parallels and I found my way to understanding, healing and forgiveness). Thank you for sharing. This touched me deeply. You are a beautiful writer. E.

    • Gail Kauranen Jones (“Coach Gail Jones”—Your worthiness expert) says:

      Thank you, Elizabeth, for your kind words, and I am sorry you had to walk a somewhat similar journey. Beautiful to hear of your healing for both yourself and your relationship with your mom before she died. Yes, writing is therapeutic for me–and I’ve learned not to share it until I’ve done the inner healing first. Blessings, Gail

  • Beth says:

    So deep, generous and moving, Gail. I expect many of your readers will be touched and drawn to more compassion for others and themselves.

    • Gail Kauranen Jones (“Coach Gail Jones”—Your worthiness expert) says:

      Thank you, Beth, and I’m grateful the blog moved you in some way. And, yes, we could all use a bit more compassion:) Blessings, Gail

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