A Special-Needs Parent's Battle Against Shame

“You may want to wear these arm guards,” Ashley said as we prepared to go in the padded room where James would do his therapy. His anxiety has been increasing over the last year and because of his limited verbal ability, it often exhibits as aggressive and self-injurious behavior. He hits himself and others (mostly me since I’m with him the most) to express what he can’t say. So on Wednesdays we go to a local college with an outstanding autism center with Master’s level students who focus on behaviors and communication. Last year we were part of a study on PICA (eating non-food items) and it was successful. So we were eager for more help with this even bigger challenge.

Since I’m the one so often hit, I am much more involved in this therapy. And to figure out why he’s hitting, they have to see him do it. So I withhold attention and toys he wants for short, specific amounts of time and they gather data on how long it takes him to get mad enough to hit me. In the padded room, I turn away from him while watching the cartoon “Backyardigans” on YouTube on my phone. He wants the phone, so he first tries to make eye contact, then he pulls on my arm, then he hits me, himself, or the wall. They write it all down and we do it again. He gets rewarded for not hitting, gets lots of breaks, and actually loves therapy day, but it is exhausting to me. Not just because I’m getting hit, but because I feel judged.

Brené Brown is a shame researcher and has written extensively on the topic. She shares, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It is related to guilt, but different. Guilt says “I have done something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.” So when we go to therapy each Wednesday, I don’t just feel like I’ve made a mistake in how I’ve handled James’s aggression up to this point, I feel like I am the mistake. I am a bad mom. I am bad.

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The gospel has an answer for shame. Peter found it when he experienced the deepest shame of his life. Jesus knew it would happen. As Jesus turned His thoughts to the cross, He and Peter had a conversation.

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times. (John 13:36-38)

It doesn’t take long for us to see Jesus’s prediction come true:

Then they seized [Jesus] and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. Luke 22:54-62

Peter had acted exactly as Jesus said he would. And Peter felt that shame. Not just “I made a mistake,” but “I am a mistake.”

But Jesus is the solution.

When Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to Jesus’s tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe. “And he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:6-7). Did you catch the small detail in this verse? “... and Peter ...” Jesus knew Peter’s shame would keep him hidden.

Brené writes, “When we feel shame, we are most likely to protect ourselves by blaming something or someone, rationalizing our lapse, offering a disingenuous apology, or hiding out.” But what kills shame is empathy. “If we can share our story with someone who respond with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”

When Jesus and Peter walked together near the Sea of Tiberias, Peter’s shame was healed as Jesus gently reminded him of the truth and gave him a mission. “Do you love me?” Jesus asked, giving Peter the opportunity to say he did. Three times he asked, and the final time Peter responded, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you” (John 21:17). Our Savior knows everything. Every secret we try to hide. Every mistake that becomes our identity. He knows, He sees, and He loves us anyway.

The light He brings into our darkness reminds us we are who He says we are, not what shame says we are.

Peter himself later wrote, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Meeting Christ pushed away the shame and gave him a new identity. Then he was ready to move on to his purpose—build Christ’s church by caring for Christ’s people. When we turn the pages in our Bible from the end of the Gospel of John to the Book of Acts, we see Peter fulfill the first stages of that mission by preaching at Pentecost.

Shame didn’t have the final say in Peter’s life and it doesn’t in our lives either. You are more than the mistakes you’ve made or the weaknesses you feel. His love meets you where you are and gently reminds you of your identity in Him.

Learn more about our upcoming conference for disability and mental health inclusion in churches!

Learn more about our upcoming conference for disability and mental health inclusion in churches!