Why Do I Keep Making The Same Mistakes Over And Over?

Overcoming a shame mindset

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It was one of those days. You know, the ones you never want to repeat again . . . or have anyone remind you of what went down. Connor was three, and he had discovered the fun of stuffing lots of toilet paper in the commode before flushing. He yells for me that the toilet is overflowing and I dash upstairs to assess the damage, only to find he had stuffed the toilet full with paper after having diarrhea. The diarrhea water was now spilling over the edge of the toilet, filling up the floor in the bathroom, and quickly approaching the carpet of his bedroom. I froze and panicked at the same time – I had no idea what to do because I was the only adult home. I didn’t have time to run down two flights of stairs to get some rags to clean up the mess, and I didn’t have the plunger to unstop the toilet. So naturally I just started yelling. Somehow in my angst I made a split second decision to go get rags, but as I passed through the kitchen, I noticed something coming through my ceiling, dripping onto my dishwasher and countertops. Are you kidding me - this can’t be happening! Yep – diarrhea water in my kitchen . . . so hence even louder, more desperate shouts ensue from my mouth as I flounder about trying to figure out how to fix this. I ran back upstairs and completely lost it, yelling hysterically at the top of my lungs, berating Connor with the blame, “YOU did this! I told you not to use a lot of toilet paper - this is all YOUR fault!” He began to cry.

Of course in retrospect I realize that unleashing my anger on Connor only exacerbated the stress of this experience. But this was not the only time I had lost my cool with my son - his defiance would trigger me to react before I even realized what was happening. Compared to a three year old, shouldn’t I be the mature one . . . the one in control? Why couldn’t I handle situations like this more calmly? Why couldn’t I be that parent that peacefully handles chaos with wisdom and grace . . . you know, the ones you read about in Christian parenting books? Forget a parenting award, I just wanted to make it through a day without screaming at my child.

We’re often mad at our children, not because they’ve broken God’s law, but because they have gotten in the way of the laws of our peace and comfort. - Paul Tripp

I later unpacked the events of the day with my husband, telling him about my meltdown. I felt so awful about the way I yelled at Connor. Even though I apologized to him, the sting of it all still resonated within. I mean aren’t these the things that wound a child’s spirit and send them into counseling as an adult? I felt like a failure as a parent and as a Christian. I could completely relate to Lysa Terkeurst when she wrote in her book Unglued, “I know what it is like to praise God one minute and in the next minute yell and scream at my child – and then feel both the burden of my destructive behavior and the shame of my powerlessness to stop it.” 

A few weeks later I find out my husband had lunch with his psychologist friend . . . and I was the topic of discussion. I had met this guy once before, and I knew Bob trusted him, but I was appalled to find out this guy knew about one of my worst parenting blunders ever! He is probably psychoanalyzing me, and thinks I am one of those crazy moms and wives who always yells and loses it. I was certain he judged my character by this information, and I had absolutely no desire to ever encounter him face-to-face again.

What made matters worse, as a Mother’s Day gift that year – my husband was planning to hire a college student (a child development major) to give me “a break” from parenting during the week. Connor’s “terrible twos” didn’t visit us until he was three, so I was dealing with regular challenges throughout the week (even Connor’s sitters said he was too difficult for them), so Bob thought I would enjoy some down time. My husband is an incredibly generous and thoughtful gift-giver so I know he meant well (and some of you Mommas out there might have loved his gift), but you know how it made me feel? Shameful. Like he thinks I am such a bad mother that a college student without kids can do a better job with my son than I can.

Brenee Brown, a professor and shame researcher, explains there is a big difference between guilt and shame. Brown teaches that guilt is focused on behavior, while shame is focused on self. Guilt says, “I did something bad - I made a mistake.” Shame says, “I am bad – I am a mistake.” I knew I did something bad by exploding on Connor . . . but I was simply too mean that day to just shake it off, and others knowing about my issues only exacerbated my tendency toward shame. I felt like the mistake.

In her book Unglued, Lysa explains that even though we regret exploding, we will often do one of two things: deflect that regret by blaming someone else, or ingest that regret by shaming ourselves. Clearly I was an overachiever, because somehow I managed to accomplish both of these things. 

In Scripture shame is connected to condemnation, which the enemy thrives on using to defeat us. Brown attests to the destructive effects of shame, explaining that it is “highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders.” However, she points out that guilt is inversely correlated with those things. Brown states, “The ability to hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.” So guilt can be a healthy response to a mistake, similar to the way the Bible speaks of conviction. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin in order to lead us to repentance . . . to unlock potential for positive change and growth.

It can also be helpful to understand the difference between labeling ourselves and simply identifying our tendencies. According to Lysa, “Labeling says, ‘I am the sum total of my difficult issues.’ . . . Identifying, on the other hand says, ‘My issues are part of the equation but not the sum total.’” In other words, I am not defined by my mistakes.

The Bible states that there is no condemnation in Christ, and that everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame (Romans 8:1, Romans 10:11). It teaches us that God will forgive us and cleanse us every single time we repent (1 John 1:9, Lamentations 3:22-23). It affirms us that God will be our strength when we are weak (2 Corinthians 12:9), and will empower us with His grace to overcome (Ephesians 3:16, 2 Peter 1:3, 2 Corinthians 9:8). But if that is all true, why was I still a mess? Why did I keep making the same mistakes over and over?

I knew I needed help. I was stuck in a parenting rut . . . and in a shame cycle about it. I had exhausted all my tools and tricks with Connor and nothing was working. But he was not the only problem – I was failing too. I kept promising myself I would try harder next time, but self-effort could not deliver me. No matter how many times I told myself to stop reacting harshly, his poor behavior seemed to trigger me. Instead of responding to him with love and self-control, I would explode. I was desperate for God to intervene. 

Interestingly, Lysa points out that coming unglued is not always bad if it brings us to God. She encourages us to view our raw emotions as a call to action, explaining that . . .

Outward expressions are internal indications. If our outward expressions are unglued, there’s some brokenness internally. Broken places we won’t address unless we are forced to acknowledge their existence. . . . God doesn’t allow the unglued moments in our lives to happen so we’ll label ourselves and stay stuck. He allows the unglued moments to make us aware of the chiseling that needs to be done. So instead of condemning myself with statements like, I’m such a mess, I could say, Let God chisel. Let Him work on my hard places so I can leave the dark places of being stuck and come into the light of who he designed me to be.

I was ready for God to work on my hard places - I was tired of being stuck. Only He knew the real source of the problem and how to unlock things for me. But there are tons of parenting books full of people’s opinions and parenting techniques (even Christian books I disagree with), so where should I even start?  I pleaded for God to lead me in my quest for help. 

Not long after praying, my friend offered to loan me Danny Silk’s CDs on parenting called “Loving Our Kids on Purpose.” They were full of wisdom and practical help, helping to address both my issues and Connor's. Around the same time, another friend suggested a book called “Parenting With Love and Logic,” so I read it too (later learning that Danny Silk based his teachings on this very book)! Clearly God was guiding me to this parenting material. I learned that my job was not to control my child, but to control myself . . . and that sometimes the best solution was to put myself in a time-out (a quiet place to calm down before I reacted out of emotion). The books taught me about the power of simply enforcing consequences for Connor’s behavior, and how to best do this with grace, not legalism.  

In addition, the testimonials from these books assured me I was not alone in my struggles. For a long time, I did not want others to know about my screw-ups because I felt like a failure – I thought surely everyone else was doing a better job at parenting than me. But that was a lie . . . one the enemy wanted me to believe in order to keep me from the healing power of community. Brown teaches that shame grows exponentially with secrecy, silence, and judgment . . . but that empathy is the antidote to shame. She shares, “The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.” Learning that others understood what I was going through helped conquer the shame buried in my heart.

I knew it would take time to implement these new parenting techniques well, but just because it may be hard, does not mean it is impossible (Matthew 19:26).  I may not always be able to fix my circumstances, but I can fix my mind on God in the midst of them. But if I wanted to develop new responses, I needed to develop better thoughts – I needed to see things through God’s perspective (Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 10:5).

1 John 3:20 says, "Whenever our hearts make us feel guilty and remind us of our failures, we know that God is much greater and more merciful than our conscience, and he knows everything there is to know about us." So I began to renew my mind with God’s truth about who He is for me, and who I really am as His child. But since it takes time to rewire our brains, for new truths to filter down and actually affect our behavior, I needed to be patient with myself. In reality, God was not disappointed in me when I messed up again; rather, He was smiling every time I acknowledged my failures and turned to Him for help. I love the analogy Michelle Perry once used – she explained that God looks at us trying to get things right like a parent looks at their child learning to walk. The toddler wobbles with uncertainty, eager to walk, but then takes a few steps and trips and falls. But we don’t yell and say, “You should have done a better job!” Instead, we pick them up with joy, wipe away their tears and say, “Way to go – you did it – you took a couple of steps! Now let's try that again together. I’m right here if you need my hand - I will pick you up if you fall.”

You see, God never intended for us to fight our battles alone (1 Corinthians 10:13, 2 Chronicles 20:15). The Lord comes along side us as we turn to Him for help, as we step out with the little faith we have . . . and He rejoices in even our smallest steps forward. Lysa put it well when she coined the term imperfect progress, “slow steps of progress wrapped in grace.” She writes . . .

Progress. Just make progress. It’s okay to have setbacks and the need for do-overs. It’s okay to draw a line in the sand and start over again – and again. Just make sure you’re moving the line forward. Move forward. Take baby steps, but at least take steps that keep you from being stuck. Then change will come. And it will be good.

We repent, believe, and fight over and over again, every day, all day long . . . for everything in life, from the biggest of challenges to the smallest of irritations. Pastor Bob Flayhart calls this cycle, “The Christian Waltz," a dance dependent on God's huge grace and our little "yes." Jennifer Phillips writes, "It looks something like this: You lose your mind when your child disobeys/doesn’t listen/is disrespectful, etc. You repent—not just of yelling, but of loving something more than your child—peace, maybe? Respect? Compliance? You repent of loving these things more than God. Then you receive His forgiveness and choose to believe Him when He says that He loves you and will provide every single thing you need to love your child well. Then you fight like crazy to walk in obedience to the calling He has given you as that child’s parent. And then, you repeat when you fail again. It may be two minutes later. But you cry out for rescue again, and slowly, slowly, slowly, your heart will change. When the heart changes, behavior is close behind. And you dance the waltz until you’re safely Home."

To this day, I continue to get things wrong as a parent. But you know what? I do not explode as often as I used to, and I am quicker to ask forgiveness when I mess up.  In addition, I am kinder toward my own brokenness, refusing to ingest shame when I fail. Glorious imperfect progress.

So for those of you who may be wondering if you are the only one struggling, the only one who continues to make the same mistakes over and over again, let me simply say to you, “me too.”

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:3-5

RECOMMENDED READING:

"Unglued: Making Wise Choices In The Midst Of Raw Emotions" Book by Lysa Terkeurst

"I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making The Journey From What Will People Think? to I Am Enough" Book by Brenee Brown

"My Cover is Blown: The Day I Realized I Worship My Reputation." Article by Jennifer Phillips

Parenting Material:

"Loving Our Kids On Purpose: Making A Heart-To-Heart Connection" by Danny Silk

"Parenting With Love And Logic" by Foster Cline and Jim Fay

"Parenting: The 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family" by Paul Tripp

Carey McNamara

I am a wife to Bob, a mom to Connor, and a physician assistant who is passionate about beating heart disease. As a devoted lover of Jesus, I am on an unending quest for more truth, love, and wholeness through Him. I have come to a place in my life where I realize God is not afraid of my questions, and I have learned the joy of pursuing Him until I discover His heart. As a result, I created a blog to encourage others in their own journey towards Life, Liberty, and Love in Christ. I am passionate about doing life authentically in community, and am thrilled to share a bit of that with you here.

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