How to Manage Embarrassment, Guilt and Shame
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What do you do when your child is embarrassed, guilty or filled with shame? Let's continue the conversation.
What You'll Learn from this Episode:
If you live with someone with OCD, embarrassment is part of your life. In this podcast episode you will learn how to manage embarrassment more effectively.
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You trip on the stairs and fall.
What’s the first thing you do? If you’re like most people, you look around to see who witnessed it.
If you’re alone, no problem.
If you’re in front of your boss or your heartthrob or the viewing audience of the Academy Awards, it’s a whole different story. You might feel like you want to crawl into a dark hole and never come out.
In this podcast episode I’ll offer tips to help you and your child more effectively manage embarrassment.
Welcome to the OCD PowerParenting Podcast You’re most likely here because you are a parent who wants to do everything in your power to help your child get to the other side of OCD. On the other side, your child— and not your child’s OCD— is in the driver’s seat of his or her life.
I’m Dr. Vicki Rackner, and I wear three hats as I speak to you today. First, I’m the mom of my son diagnosed with OCD when he was in college. We’re now 7 years into our OCD story. Second I’m a surgeon who spent many years treating breast cancer patients. And third, I’m a coach who has spent 2 decades helping physicians and business owners get better results. I use all of these experiences to help you rise to the challenge of parenting a child with OCD.
Let’s dive into today’s episode.
Imagine going up to a complete stranger and asking, “Do you have sex with men, with women or both?”
That’s exactly what I had to do when I started seeing patients in medical school. Back then AIDS was called the gay plague and we knew that sexual habits played a part in the bigger health picture.
The first couple of times I asked, I was embarrassed. I’m sure my face turned the color of a ripe beefsteak tomato.
Over time discussing the things that happened behind the closed bedroom and bathroom doors became normal for me. I called them the embarrassing p’s—peeing, pooping and procreating. My face didn’t get red anymore. This is just what people in my new tribe of doctors did. The consequences of not doing so were profound.
I had a patient literally die of embarrassment. She was too embarrassed to tell the doctors about the blood in her stool. When the doctor didn’t ask, she didn’t offer this information. When the colon cancer that was the cause of the blood was diagnosed, it was too late.
Embarrassment is the powerful feeling you get when you stand out rather than fit in. Usually people get embarrassed when they stand out in a bad way; some people get embarrassed when they’re called out for doing something above and beyond.
Why is tripping such an embarrassing thing? Why does your face turn red? Why do you want to run and hide?
Let’s get back to the way the brain works.
Think about your brain as a three story house.
On the upper level, you have the thinking brain.
On the main level you have the feeling brain.
Then in the basement you have the reptile brain. This is the part of the brain that takes care of the basic functions of living. Your brain’s number one job is to keep you alive.
What happens when you have a new thought?
It depends. Let’s say you’re a CPA working on taxes. You’re in your thinking brain. Then you remember, “I need to pick up milk on the way home.” This is an emotionally neutral thought. You stay in your thinking brain.
Let’s say I’m working on my latest book, and something reminds me of my mother who died this year or my brother who died last year. I could go from my thinking brain to my feeling brain to process my sadness.
If you’re driving and someone runs a red light and almost hits you, you swerve almost reflexively. Your activated reptile brain prepares your body to do what’s needed to save your life.
If you or someone you love has OCD, a wiring glitch in their brain presents disturbing unwanted thoughts or images. These thoughts or images usually go directly to the basement reptile brain. Before they even start processing the thought, their body gets ready to fight or flee. The racing heart or the sweaty palms reinforces the belief that something bad really is happening.
So what does all of this have to do with embarrassment? The red face of embarrassment happens instantly, just like the racing heart and sweaty palms. It is not under voluntary control.
You don’t lose your life when you trip. You don’t get red-faced when you’re about to be robbed. Why is embarrassment part of the fight-or flight response?
Could it be that in a hunter-gatherer society a tribe member’s trip and fall could let a predator know your location? Maybe.
There’s another way of explaining it. Embarrassment is the feeling you get when you recognize you’re not fitting in. One of the consequences of not fitting in is the risk of being kicked out of the tribe. That could mean the difference between life and death. Even the description “mortified” contains the latin root mors meaning death.
The red face of embarrassment tells others, “I broke the code. I know it, and now I know you know it because I know you can see my red face.”
It’s a core survival strategy.
You see, the reptile brain knows how to do four things when life and death are on the line. You already know that fighting and fleeing are two options. Freezing is a third option. However, there’s a fourth option called fawning. It’s where you face the person who represents the threat and try to appease him or her.
If a dog rolls on its back and shows its belly, it’s saying I’m no threat to you.
How many emotions can you see from across the room? You can learn how to read faces and pick up clues that someone is hungry or tired or in love. However, the red face of embarrassment is not subtle.
When we decide how to respond the experience of feeling embarrassed, we’re informed by both the actual circumstances as well as the body’s response that tells us life and death is on the line.
Further, our brains contain cells called mirror neurons. We can “catch” another person’s embarrassment when we see it.
Why address embarrassment in a podcast about OCD?
Many of the behaviors associate with OCD fall outside the norm. If others witnessed them, they could be the cause of embarrassment.
Imagine you see someone in the parking lot at the mall. Instead of just unlocking the car door and getting in, a woman makes three counterclockwise revolutions around the car, does 7 push-ups, then makes three clockwise rotations followed by 7 burpees. While you don’t know this by looking at her, she won’t park next to a car with a license plate that ends with an odd number.
That looks like crazy behavior. We all like avoiding crazy. Crazy is unsafe.
Now let’s say that your 19-year-old son with OCD has these same rituals around getting in the car.
Your son would agree that this is crazy behavior. Your son wants to give it up. However, the OCD brain wiring glitch makes it difficult.
Most importantly, your son knows that he will be embarrassed if anyone sees these rituals.
Your child may feel that he or she needs to hide until they do a better job of managing OCD.
Hiding makes OCD worse—not better. Hiding makes things more dangerous—not safer—for our kids. Secrecy leads to shame that leads to growing OCD.
Learning how to manage embarrassment is a skill that can help your child get to the other side of OCD.
They say you don’t die from a snake bite; you die from the poison injected.
The sensations you have when your experience embarrassment are like the snake bites. It’s a biologic response over which you have no control like your knee jerking when the doctors tap it with a reflex hammer. The judgments and the actions that you do once you’re embarrassed are the poison.
Your biology is not your destiny. You get to decide how to respond to your biology to get a different outcome.
I learned how to ask my patients, “Do have sex with men or women or both?” without getting a beet-red face. I learned how to take the poison out of embarrassment so I could do what I wanted to do in life.
Here are some things that can help you and your child and all of your family members take the poison out of embarrassment and get on with life.
Step #1: Demystify Embarrassment.
The first step is to demystify what’s happening in the brain and the body when you’re embarrassed. You can say to your child, “Feelings are like the warning lights on the car dashboard that convey a message. Embarrassment is the very uncomfortable feeling you get the you stand out rather than fit in. Think about driving on a highway in which there are bumps on the lane dividers. Embarrassment is like the bumps reminding you that you’re drifting outside of the lane of socially acceptable behavior.”
Then you can continue, “The part of your brain that’s active when you feel embarrassed is the same part of the brain involved in the fight or flight response. Your body thinks this is a matter of life and death, even thought you know intellectually it is not.”
You might want to invite your child to listen to this podcast episode.
Step #2: Normalize Embarrassment.
Second, normalize embarrassment. You could say, “You know, everybody does embarrassing things.
Sit down together and watch an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Tell stories about other people who did embarrassing things.
Jenifer Lawrence was already one of my favorite actors, and she got even more of my respect when I saw how she managed her trip and fall on the way up the stairs to accept her academy award. Once she arrived at the podium, she laughed. Then she said to the audience who rose to their feet, “You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell and that’s embarrassing.”
Jennifer nailed the formula of how to respond to embarrassment. Own it. Laugh. Call it out.
Jennifer Lawrence, if this podcast somehow finds its way to you, please know that my intention is not to embarrass you. It’s to show people in my community, “Look, this is how you do embarrassment.” I’m celebrating you.
And Jennifer, if you feel re-traumatized, I apologize. Give me a call and we can brainstorm possible healing rituals that might involve your academy award. You’re a badass and I love your movies.
Step #3: Don’t Hide.
Third, don’t hide. When you’re embarrassed, you will want to hide. Hiding makes the poison flow. It keeps your kid stuck in the dark side of OCD where the OCD is in the driver’s seat of your child’s life.
To get to the other side of OCD, help your child find a safe way and a safe place to talk about embarrassing things.
Encourage your child—at the very least—to write in a journal.
Maybe they have a friend who also has OCD. Maybe you’re that safe person.
You can find an OCD community today where it’s safe for you to be who you are and where it’s safe for your kids to be who they are. It’s like me going to medical school. I learned not to be embarrassed about behaviors because they were normal inside of that tribe.
Here’s another option. Encourage your child to participate in my OCD Confessions campaign. I’m inviting people with OCD and the people who love them to send in an anonymous postcard with the embarrassing, secret or shameful stories they work so hard to hide. Get out your markers and paints and free your inner artist! I’ll leave the address in the podcast notes.
Those are the three basic principals for managing embarrassment. Demystify it. Normalize it. Don’t hide.
Now let’s take it up a level. Let’s say your child is embarrassed because they think a friend witnessed the car ritual. Your child thinks his life is over. They ask you to move. What do you do?
As always, meet your child where he or she is at.
If your child is mortified, maybe you don’t say anything, You can embrace your child in a hug and just sit with them.
If they say something like, “I want to die!”, know that you will want to jump in and fix it. Instead, begin by sitting with the embarrassment and listening empathically. Say, “I hear you. Embarrassment can be soooo hard.”
After your child knows that he or she has been heard, you can offer a different perspective.
You could say, “You know, everybody does embarrassing things. Your friend who saw you outside of the car has been embarrassed. I promise you. It happens to everyone.”
Tell stories about times YOU were embarrassed. Like the time my cousin loaned me her car. She decided to drive from Connecticut to Boston to catch a direct international flight, and she invited me to use the car when she was gone. I told her I was nervous becuase Boston had a high rate of auto theft. She said she wasn’t worried.
So the day after she left I drove her car to a Boston suburb for a shopping trip. I came back to the block I thought I parked my cousin’s car, and it wasn’t there. I was in luck. I waved down a Boston police officer and frantically said, “I want to report a stolen car.” He took out his shoulder mic and started calling it in. He asked, “What’s the made and model?” and he was not impressed when I told him it’s a four-door brown car with Connecticut plates. He said, annoyed, “Can’t you do any better?” I looked up and down the street to find a similar car, and saw my cousin’s car a block away. I said with glee, “I found my car.” The officer just replaced his mic, looked at me with disgust and said, “Get it together lady.”
Whenever someone tells a story about something embarrassing in my family, we say, “Get it together lady.”
Your child might ask you, “What do I do? Do I talk to my friend? Ignore it?”
Before you go there, let me ask you a question. Do YOU get embarrassed by your child’s behavior? Let’s say you go to the mall with your son, and stranger frowns as she watches your son circle the car and do the mini-work-out? How do you respond?
You are in the best position to help your child if you have done your own work around embarrassment.
We get embarrassed as parents because we believe are held responsible for our kids’ behaviors.
When my son was very young, he got me excited about baseball. We regularly went to Seattle Mariners games. Mariners fans are very polite. If the pitcher walked a batter, the crowd was likely to say, “You’ll get ‘em next time.”
I took my son to a Yankees game before they tore down the stadium. As we sat in the stadium we just looked at each other in disbelief as we watched the way the fans yelled at their own players. We broke out laughing when we heard a fan yell out “You bum!”
A week after this trip to New York we went to another Mariners game. The pitcher was having a hard day. After he walked two batters back-to-back, my son shouted out “Send him back to the minors” and heads whipped around to see who said this. That’s not how mariners fan behave. I’m sure I blushed because I was responsible and accountable for this little person and he just broke the tribal rules.
If you’re embarrassed about your child’s car ritual, it reinforces your child’s embarrassment. Do your own work first!
Your goal is to get to the point where you say with emotional neutrality, ”Yup, that’s my child doing the car ritual.” Just like you say, “Yup. The sun is out today.” Or I ask, “Do you have sex with men or women for both?” It’s simply a statement, without emotion.
Here’s an exercise I learned from Emmy-award-winning comic Bill Stainton. Imagine a video camera following you around. The magic microphone even captures your thoughts. Now imagine you deliver this video to the writers of a late-night comedy show. How would the host describe your day in the monolog?
Unkind comics get laughs at the expense of others; kind comics poke fun at themselves.
In Judaism embarrassing others in public is considered a serious crime. Don’t embarrass your child. Instead, poke fun at yourself.
If it feels right, you can invite your child into this exercise of viewing life through a comedic lens. How would a late night talk show host describe the embarrassing circumstances? Your child might not be there.
I often judge my own metal healthy by the amount of time between the embarrassing event and my ability to laugh at it.
Now let’s get back to your child, who wants to know what to do about the friend who witnessed the OCD ritual.
You can begin by asking your child, “What do you think?”
He or she might say, “Maybe my friend didn’t see it.” Or “I’ll just wait and see if anything blows up at school.”
You could respond “Great options. I wonder, though. Your OCD can act up when you think about what others think about you. What would you do if that happens?”
Let your child come up with his or her own answers.
This might also be the time to explore whether your child wants to “come out” to his friend. I’m not talking about coming out as gay but rather coming out as a person learning to manage OCD.
Take the temperature very carefully before you suggest this. You main goal is to create a safe place in which you and your child can have a conversation. Even the thought of letting others know about OCD can feel very dangerous.
You can ask, “Do any of your friends know that you’re learning to manage OCD?” And, “What happened when you shared this information?”
Let’s say that your child is willing to explore it the idea of talking with this friend. You can ask, “What would you say?”
Your child might know exactly what to say.
If not, ask, “Would you like some help?”
Please get in the habit of asking for permission before offering help. It’s just a basic form of respect. If they say no, stop!
If the answer is yes, you might say, “How about if we role-play. You can be your friend and I can be you.”
You might say, “Hey, Ben, I’m not sure, but you might have seen me circle my car, and do push-ups and burpees. You might have wondered what that was about. I normally don’t like to talk about it because it’s embarrassing, but I have this crazy brain wiring glitch called OCD. It’s not that I have a clean room or line up pencils because I don’t. It’s like an OCD bully lives in my brain telling me to do crazy things, or else very bad things could happen. It’s hard for me to talk back to this OCD bully, and I’m doing some work to make that happen. This is a very strange and embarrassing condition, and if you have any questions, I would be happy to talk about what it’s like for me to live with OCD.”
Then swap places. Let your child take the message and put it into their own words. Practicing will help make the conversation more natural.
Again, safety is always first. Let your child decide when and with whom they share this information.
Also know that OCD impacts all family members. You might want to have these conversations about embarrassment with your partner or your parents or your other kids or your kids’ teachers.
Let’s wrap this up. The main point of today’s episode is that we all do embarrassing things. Just watch some episodes of America’s Funniest Home Videos. We watch the show to laugh—and maybe to think, “I’m glad that’s not me.”
When you experience embarrassment, your mind and your body both respond. It feels like life and death could be on the line. You will want to go and hide. That’s your biologically wired response.
When your child with OCD does that, they move closer to the dark side of OCD where OCD is in the driver’s seat of your child’s life. OCD gets bigger and stronger.
Your biology doesn’t have to be your destiny.
In this podcast we talked about some options to help your child manage their response to embarrassment . This is a critical skill to help your child get to the other side of OCD where your child—and not your child’s OCD is in the driver’s seat of their life.
Please also remember that OCD impacts everyone who is important to your child. You and your partner and your other kids and your parents and your kids’ teachers can all improve their skills, too!
Would you like to translate some of these ideas into action? Here are three options:
- Participation in the OCD Confessions campaign. Mail an anonymous postcard in which anyone in your family shares something embarrassing about living with OCD. Make it a work of art. I’ll leave the address below. I will be sharing these in the community.
- Consider joining a community of parents of kids learning to manage OCD. In our OCD PowerParenting community, we primarily support the parents of kids in their late teens and early 20’s managing OCD. BTW, the average age of onset of OCD is 19. I’ll leave a link below.
- Invite your child to join a community of kids learning to manage OCD. My son who is 24 and 7 years into his OCD journey will be moderating a group for people in their late teens and early 20’s learning to manage OCD. I’ll leave a link below.
Our communities are intended to be safe places in which people can tell their stories without the fear of being judged.
Thanks for stopping by. I hope that you found value in this episode.
Please feel welcome to share this episode with your child. Ask what he or she thinks.
Feel welcome to also share it with people who are there to support your child, including family, friends and teachers.
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Thanks for listening. You can do this! Go from strength to strength!