Emotional Experiences to Assess: Part I. Shame Creates Push Back
A few months back I gifted myself an early Christmas present by having a cleaning professional come to my home and do a “deep clean”. I have never had outside help with housekeeping before and was unsure of what to expect. Lucky for me, the date we agreed upon was during a business trip of mine; so it was my husband and two sons present for her services.
When I got home the house smelled good, looked shiny but my family was riddled with shame. Before I could fully enjoy the cleanliness that I have never been able to achieve, both of my sons and my husband disclosed story after story of how they felt embarrassed as the lady walked them around the house and pointed out different areas of dirt, disgust and disarray.
At first I was slightly pleased, finally the family heard from someone other than me, just how hard it is to keep up the housework and how “many hands make for light work”. But the stories just keep coming and the “shame” they each experienced became much more visceral for me, so much so that I took on the time spent at my house as a fault. If I was a better mom, a better housekeeper, less of a martyr I wouldn’t need outside help. Was I a complete slob? According to the cleaning professional I was and I should be embarrassed of my own home.
My family continued for a few weeks discussing various things she had said to them during their walk through such as,”Well, at least you have very hot water”, and “What kind of animal do you have that leaves all this hair near the toilet?”. It was apparent that I needed to up my game on the cleaning supplies I had, how often I used them and how much more aware I needed to be of my physical surroundings that are clearly a little too “lived -in”.
With a few months of distance between the experience and a lot of reflection, I have come to a few conclusions:
First of all, Shame will get you nowhere. In fact when we feel we need to use shameful comments to make a point, we create distance. Shame is one of the emotions we avoid adamantly. When we experience shame we either shut down or push back, but are always left with a feeling that we are inadequate, not worthy, and somewhat “less than”.
Secondly, when people seek out a helping professional, usually with their tail between their legs, admitting that they know they need help, the helping professional should honor the “ask” and respond appropriately. A helping professional is just that, a professional in a specific field that not all of us can master. We come to that helper completely aware that we are in the dark and in need of assistance. When the professional uses shameful and offensive language towards us, we are less likely to be open to suggestions simply because we are shutting down, using defenses to protect ourselves.
Next, Shame producing communication styles and strong agendas break down trust and cause the average, non professional to avoid interactions with the helping professional in the future. I will not be having that cleaning professional over again. She lost my business simply because
what I paid for turned into an experience of offense by my family. That is not what I was looking for. In retrospect, I recall several medical/ dental specialists that I never returned back to simply because I was so embarrassed of my limitations or failed attempts based on the language and approach.
In the long term/ health care industry we are the helping professionals that others come to knowing that they don’t know it all. Personal caregivers may approach us defensively, unwilling to admit their limitations or failed attempts, but in their desire to be better, get better, they do come to us.
It is our job to monitor our agendas, be mindful of the language and communication styles (including our body language) so as to keep the personal caregiver engaged and feeling capable. We need to avoid any type of message that could cause the caregiver to shut down and push away.
The antidote to shameful expressions are ones of acknowledgment and gratitude. Help the caregiver uncover moments and attempts that were successful, helpful and “special” to their loved one. Embellish on how uncommon some of their positive qualities are and how impactful they are on the caregiving team. Thank the caregiver for coming to you, for trusting you, for acting as a true advocate. When a caregiver experiences a sense of pride in what they CAN do and what they are trying to accomplish, they are less likely to shut down and ignore meaningful insights.
Be the helping professional that others seek out, as a trusted source that the caregiver is drawn to return to. Become the helping professional that would be hired again when the need arises. Take a breath and a break if you feel you are operating from a “higher authority” agenda. It will only turn others away. Be the helper that others chose to turn to.
Cathy Braxton Improv4Caregivers