My children are enrolled in a martial arts class that keeps us very busy. From 4pm until 7pm twice during the week and from 10 am until noon one day on the weekend, we schedule our plans around my children’s class. I have a confession to make. Last week I just didn’t want to go to their class. Instead of being honest with my children, I told them that classes were cancelled. It was unseasonably hot and they got to spend their evenings running through the sprinkler and helping me in the flowerbeds. I thought the situation was great until my youngest daughter said to me, “I really wish I could have gone to jiu jitsu tonight. I have been practicing my shrimping and wanted to show my coaches.” As soon as those words were out of her mouth, my stomach clenched into knots and I felt sick. Not only had I been dishonest, but I had also taken something away from my kids that they enjoyed, and I had done so for nothing more than the fact that I just didn’t feel like doing it. Bring on the award for Worst Mother of The Year; wrap that in guilt and cue shame now.
While a single act can bring about both feelings of guilt and shame they are not the same thing. To understand what guilt and shame are capable of doing to us we first need to clarify what they are exactly, and my therapist did this for me in a way that I could wrap my head around. Guilt is, “I did something bad” while shame is, “I am bad.” Obviously there is so much more to these very complex feelings, and I am in no way trying to minimize them, but this is a good starting point. Here is a great article on the difference between the two.
At some point in everyone’s life it is inevitable that we will feel guilt. Last summer my five year old experienced guilt for the first time and while it broke my heart that she hurt, at the same time I was in awe watching her recognize her actions and her response to remedying them. There are conflicting studies about whether or not guilt is a healthy or unhealthy emotional experience to have. If you look at my daughter’s experience, it was a valuable life lesson and a learning tool that we have used in conversations since then. It has given us a reference point and has deepened her sense of empathy, compassion and remorse. However, I have also had to use this same experience to teach her about shame, as she felt so badly about what she had done that she started to turn that hurt inward and instead of discerning that she had made a bad choice, she had started to believe that she was a bad girl.
Some people believe that in small doses guilt can be a positive force. If we feel badly about something we have done–real or imagined–it can inspire us to act differently in the future. We can choose to change our behaviors. Guilt can be hurtful, but a lot of times it’s passing. People use guilt as a kind of moral compass and since this is the case, our society does use it as a means to resolve certain conflicts. What’s right and what’s wrong is based on a civilized standard, whether that is religious, spiritual or personal, guilt factors into all of it in some sense. Whether we feel guilty for something that we have done, or we have made others feel guilty as a way to communicate something that we need, there is always a way to cleanse guilt and learn from it without carrying the weight of it around all of the time. It may not be simple, I’ve struggled with it a lot, but I promise you there are ways to ease you of that guilt, and to work it to your advantage.
- Acknowledge and accept the behaviour – what’s done is done, you can’t go back.
- Make amends – If your behaviour or actions have hurt someone, or even yourself, own it and mean it. Do what you can to make amends for that, and don’t repeat those behaviours. You have a choice.
- Let it go – Beating yourself up over and over is a colossal waste of your time and is only going to get you a ticket to shame.
You need to understand that nobody is perfect, and that includes you, and that’s okay. You’re going to make mistakes and so are others, if you can’t be courteous and forgiving and are having a really tough time letting go of guilt, it may just be time to speak to a therapist about it. Guilt feels awful, and it feels even worse when we feel like we deserve to feel guilty. If you’re always looking for reasons to feel bad about something, or someone in particular is projecting feelings onto you that have you feeling awful, it might go deeper than guilt. This is where you may have guilt confused with shame.
When we feel shame the first response that most of us have is to avoid or ignore whatever it is that causes us to feel that shame. If someone is overweight and they are made to feel ashamed of that, chances are they are more than likely going to pick up a fork before they pick up a gym membership. Shame does not give someone the opportunity to change. Shame is that feeling of worthlessness. It isn’t a response to an action, it’s so much deeper than that, it’s a feeling about oneself. Yes, guilt can spiral shame, but where guilt can lead to someone feeling badly enough about their actions that they will communicate them, shame can do the opposite. It can cause social withdrawal. It can lead to people feeling so poorly about themselves that they turn into people pleasers in a way to find validation from someone else, because they certainly don’t get it from themselves. The effects of shame are never healthy or constructive; in fact they are often times damaging and even catastrophic. From depression and rage to addiction and loneliness, shame can feel like you’re never going to pull out, but there is hope. There is always hope.
- Find out where the shame lies – once you’ve established what the underlying reason for that shame is, you can work on undoing it.
- Let yourself feel – Sometimes facing our feelings is one of the most difficult things we can do, not just because they’re uncomfortable, but also because we’re giving up control. As strange as it may sound, even though feeling as terrible as we do isn’t ideal, it’s what we know and it’s convenient.
- Understanding that shame IS NOT motivation – If someone is using shame as a “tool” to get something from you, or keep you in an unhealthy situation, that needs serious evaluation immediately. Shame is an abusive technique that is used to maintain control and redirect the focus of the abuser’s actions and behaviours onto you. If you are finding that you are using shame in this manner, you need to evaluate that as well.
- Talk to someone – Make an appointment with a therapist or your doctor. CBT and DBT are both wonderful therapies that if you put in the effort, will pay off in spades.
This is a topic that I would highly suggest everyone seek professional help with. I have struggled with both guilt and shame for a very long time. It took years for me to acknowledge and accept the shame that I lived with and I did that with the help of my therapist, psychiatrist, support systems, and hard work. There are so many things in life that can happen to us that are completely out of our control, these things can have tragic and lasting effect, and shame is one of them. Once you have identified the difference between guilt–which isn’t great, I’ll give you that–and shame, you’ve got something to work with. It’s time to unpack the bags because the guilt trip is over. It’s time to figure out how to start healing.