Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Breaking Free of Guilt and Shame

The feelings of guilt and shame can be very helpful. As a child, when you get angry and smack your baby brother in the face, it's appropriate to feel guilt, or even a moment of shame. It serves you and the world, because if you felt nothing, you might grow up to be a danger to society. In the right doses, these feelings help us want to be better, more conscientious people.

Guilt is different than shame, but too often we merge them in our psyches. You might have heard the expression, "Guilt is about what you did. Shame is about what you are." This is a helpful distinction, because too often we make an innocent mistake, and instead of a moment of guilt, we go directly into shame, "I spilled the milk---I'm such a loser." This just causes a downward spiral.

Whether this habit originated from our parents, our church, or our own soul-level lessons, we can learn to redirect and reframe shame and guilt so they don't become the inner dialog than runs our life. This is critical to mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health, because guilt and shame can be extremely toxic.

The first step to reframing and redirecting, is to identify what's going on. How do you feel? Did you do something that you wish you hadn't? Or maybe not do something that you think you should have? If so, you're probably feeling guilt. Take a look at how serious the perceived offence was. Was it an accident that could have happened to anyone? Was it an act of irresponsibility? Did you hurt someone in some way? Can you repair the damages? Regardless of what happened, it's important to acknowledge the guilt, do what can reasonably be done to make it right, and then let it go. Holding onto the guilt serves no one.

The feeling of shame is deeper. If something happens that leads to you feeling like a bad person, like you have no right to exist or to assert your God-given rights, then you have dropped into shame. It is very important to differentiate whether or not you actually did something "wrong." If you believe you did, you can reframe the feeling as guilt, and do something about it.

Shame, on the other hand, can be so deep and pervasive in us, that when even a stranger is rude to us, we feel shame. And when someone we care about expresses disapproval, we can really sink down into it. This is no way to live. There is neither power nor dignity in tiptoeing through life to avoid feeling guilt and shame in ourselves. And believe me, people will take advantage of those who are easily manipulated emotionally. It's time to break this pattern.

This week, I invite you to start differentiating between guilt and shame. If you make a mistake, hurt someone's feelings, etc., it's appropriate to feel a little guilty, but don't let it stick, and don't globalize it into shame. Make amends, if possible, and forgive yourself and move on. If you notice a pattern of shame or codependency (depending on others for your self worth), it might be time to read a book, join a group, or start therapy. This can be a serious problem, and it might be time to take the necessary steps to break free, once and for all.