Showing up when we’re to blame

I spun around as I heard the familiar clap of hand against coth. I knew that one of these two had slapped the other, but the chances were equal as to who was the perpetrator. When I saw the older of the two looking stunned and hurt, I knew the perp was his little brother, who happens to be nearly the same size.

Swallowing his tears for a moment, the eldest spit out, with all the rage in his little body, “You hurt me!”

And that’s when the younger one’s lip began quivering, his shoulders began to shake, and the tears started streaming down his face.

“I…did…. NOT!” he screamed back with a rage that surmounted that of his brother. And then he started flinging his body around, unsure what to do with the emotion ravaging his body.

Now they were both overwhelmed with anger and tears, and I barely knew where to look.

Once the older was settled and it was clear that the injury was not life-threatening, I turned my attention to the smaller of the two. Tears and snot and all the preschool emotions were in full force as he continued to sob, his voice raising to a scream, “I didn’t do anything! I… didn’t… even… mean… to… hit… him!”

“It’s okay,” I told him. “We all make mistakes. We do things without thinking or that we don’t mean to hurt someone. You just need to say you’re sorry.”

“Noooooooo!!!!!” he wailed angrily.

Well, shit.

My mind flashed instantly to an experience I had had the just the day before. A former patient had called me up, out of the blue, and asked to talk with me. “Of course!,” I’d replied.

I had looked forward to the meeting; it had been a few years since we had worked together, and I was eager to say hello and hear about her life.

As soon as she walked in, I could tell this was going to be different than I had expected.

After a moment of pleasantries, she cut to the chase. She let me know that something I had said to her at the end of our treatment together had really hurt her. She explained how she what I had shared had gone on to impact her in a lot of really profound ways, none of them positive. She stated that she had given this a lot of thought and understood why I had said what I said, and that she recognized that it was done with the best of intentions and without malice. Still, it hurt her. And she let me know it.

Sitting in that room, facing a person I deeply cared about and had been responsible to care for, hearing that I had done something that caused pain, was devastating.

And as I sat, I noticed thoughts whirling around in my head — thoughts about why I had said it, reasons it made sense in the moment, explanations for how our field and my thinking had changed. And I even started to question if it was true. I don’t really remember it going down like that, I thought. My mind was racing and my heart was pounding. I wanted to be anywhere, anywhere, but in that chair.

But… but… but…, my mind cried. Just like my son, I didn’t do anything! I… didn’t… even… mean… to… hit… him! Nooooo!!!!!

Fortunately for me and for the sake of my former patient, I kept my big mouth shut. I didn’t let my shame-based ramblings spill out. I knew that if I did, that would be for me, and not for her. And I told her that.

“I don’t want to say anything right now that will be self-serving. If I offer a response to this, I want it to only be for you, not me. So I’m going to really think about this. And I’m so grateful to you for telling me”

She told me how much she appreciated that, and that she didn’t need me to respond right now. In fact, she preferred I didn’t. She needed to come here and tell me. “I’m saying this for me,” she said, “because it was bothering me for a long time, but I’m also saying it for you. Because I care about and respect you and want to make sure that you understand how this could impact someone.”

I think I nodded feebly, and I thanked her several times for the grace she was offering me. I thanked her for caring enough about me to give me the gift of this awareness. A painful gift, but a precious one.

She left my office and I sat in silence for a while, realizing, thankfully, how important it was to feel the weight of this experience. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing her, myself, or her gift justice. I couldn’t learn from my mistake if I couldn’t let myself experience the sharp edges of its impact.

Having sat with this experience just 24 hours before, I realized I was better equipped to handle my son’s big feelings than I realized.

“I know, honey,” I cooed. “It’s so, so hard when someone you love is hurting, and you know you made them hurt. It just happened to me, and I felt angry and worried and sad. Do you feel like that?”

“Just angry,” he replied, but I could tell that wasn’t true. His voice was quieter and his shoulders had softened.

“Maybe a little bit sad, too?”

“Maybe…” he replied.

“Well… that might be called shame. Shame is a really, really hard feeling. It just means that we know that we did something that hurt someone and that makes us feel bad. It’s not a bad feeling though, just hard to feel. I’m here to sit with you while you feel it.”

He nodded sullenly as I put my hand on his back.

So this is the part of the story that sounds like I should get a medal from Brene Brown herself, right? Maybe the little one rested in my arms for a while until he was ready to apologize to his older brother as the ran off into the sunset to play?

The real story was that he noticed that his brother started playing with his legos, and so they were off to argue about something else.

But goshdarnit, he learned a lesson that day!

…Or maybe I did.

Because witnessing his little body shaking with shame reminded me of just how much grace is required to show up when we’ve hurt someone we care about. And how much strength it takes to shut our mouths and listen with our whole heart and mind to just how we’ve hurt someone.

We all like to think that if our intentions are pure, we’re in the clear from shame. But the reality is that we screw up because we’re human, and our humanity means we hurt others. It’s brutal, but it’s true.

I know, though, that the sharp edges eventually soften. And in the best of cases, we look down and realize we’ve softened too — softened into a person who can sit with their mistakes, show up to those we’ve hurt, and be the bravest kind of humans.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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