Part 4: The Challenges of Perceived Guilt and Shame

Perceived guilt and shame come from something you think you did wrong but you really didn’t.  A classic example is the child who believes she is the reason her parents got divorced.  She feels guilty about breaking up her family.  She begins to see herself as a bad person who broke up her parents marriage.  She carries this belief into adulthood.  She is afraid to get close to people because she thinks she hurts people.  She lives life without deep close connections, on the fringes, and never feels internal peace.
Reality is that she didn’t break up her parents marriage.  They chose to end their marriage.  One or both of her parents may have told her it was her fault but a child doesn’t break up a marriage.  A child can add to the disharmony or frustration in a family but the child didn’t force the parents to divorce.  Anyone who uses that excuse in any circumstance isn’t owning their behavior they are choosing to use blame to ease their own conscience.  Running through my head right now are people who say things like, “She was dressed so provocatively, she was asking for it” or “It’s because you made me so mad that you got hurt” or “If you weren’t so slow then I wouldn’t be in such a bad mood.”
Some people have thoughts about doing something they know is wrong.  From simply thinking about it, which is something all of us do, some people turn that into shame, “I am a bad person.”  Truth is, you’re a person. A bad person? No!
Finding freedom from shame is challenging.  I’ll save that for Part 5 🙂

Guilt Part 3: What's Shame Got To Do With It?

While similar in some respects, guilt and shame are on opposite sides of the spectrum from one another.  Guilt says, “I did something wrong”.  Shame responds to the state of being guilty (or the perceived state of being guilty***) with the belief, “I am bad”.  Guilt is centralized on a response to an action.  Let’s say I stole a pack of gum from a store.  Whether I get caught or not, I did something wrong.  If I experience guilt as a result of my action that’s a good thing!  I have a conscience that recognizes the laws of my community.  If I take that guilt and allow it to move toward shame, I will begin to believe I am a bad person for stealing.  The guilt has shifted from a judgment of my actions to a condemnation of my very being.
Guilt can bring healing and restoration.  If I recognize my infraction, own that I did it, then apologize and ask for forgiveness from those affected by my actions, the guilt need no longer weigh on my conscience.  I am free from it.  It may be on a police record or kept in the minds of those affected but I can move on, aware that I have the capacity to do something wrong and do all I can not to do it again.
Shame brings condemnation, misery and separation.  Shame tells me I am no good, never will be.  If I stole that gum and then went past guilt into shame, I will believe there is nothing good about me.  I am a thief.  I can never be trusted.  I can never make this right.  I will carry it like a weight until I die or learn to let go of the shame.  It will affect my relationships because in the back of my mind is this shaming belief that I am no good. I’ll believe people can’t see me as good, they just see that I am a thief.  It might negatively affect my choice of occupation or how well I perform at my job.  Sometimes our response to shame is try harder, be better than everyone else in an attempt to prove I’m not that bad.  That motive isn’t healthy.  It’s also like being on a hamster wheel because we never really know when we’ve done enough.  Usually people who employ the approach of attempting to overcome shame through performance implode at some point in their life.  We weren’t designed to operate that way for the long haul.
Sometimes we aren’t aware of our shame; we don’t realize we have it.  It’s there, though.  All people with a conscience likely have at least one shaming message going on in their minds.  What’s yours?
***This brings up another topic entirely, another kind of guilt and how it causes shame so I’ll save this explanation for Part 4: The Challenges of Perceived Guilt and Shame.

Guilt Part 2: What Do I do With My Guilt?

When you have thoughts of guilt, your first job is to ask yourself if you really did something wrong.  Who says it is wrong?  Is it the law, is it a longheld family rule, is it a made up story in your head?  Getting to the source of the standard for your behavior is really important.  This can get a bit fuzzy because several systems exist by which we measure right and wrong. Based on the standard you live by, is the reason you are experiencing guilt justified?  If not, let the guilt go.  Breathe in deeply.  As you exhale release the tension in your body and tell yourself to let the guilt go.  There is no point in hanging on to it.  Visualize it dissipating into the atmosphere.  You may need to go through this process again and again to fully release yourself from the guilt every time it comes back.  Eventually it will go away. The less time you give the thought to take hold in your brain, the easier it is to let it go.
If you have committed an infraction, acknowledge it.  Say you are sorry to yourself and anyone who may have been hurt by your action.  (This is assuming you are sorry. If you’re not, look at why.)  Be clear in your acknowledgment of your hurtful action.  “I recognize when I said those nasty words to you they were hurtful.  I am sorry I said them and I am sorry I hurt you.”  In seeking restitution you would add, “Is there anything I can do to make this right?”  Sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t.  And the final piece is what’s your plan for the future to seek to not hurt this person again?  “I recognize I have a biting tongue.  I am committed to working on this part of me and getting to the source of why I do this.  I have setup an appointment with a counselor to work on my hurtful words.”
Guilt is a big topic so look for Part 3 next week!