Guilt and Shame

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Guilt and Shame

For a very long time, these concepts were mushed together in my mind. I knew they had something to do with each other. I knew they meant different things, or why would we have two words? Usually, if two words mean the same thing, one is short and Anglo-Saxon and the other is long and French, thanks to the Norman conquest.

Every now and then I thought I should look them up in the dictionary but I always forgot. Maybe I was scared to find out! Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I looked them up, using the dictionary built into my Mac.

Guilt: the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime; a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation
Old English “gylt”

Shame: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior; a loss of respect or esteem; dishonor
Old English “sceamu”

As far as I am concerned, they still seem somewhat mushed together. I think I might be able to do better.

I don’t know where I heard this, but somebody said or wrote that the feeling of guilt comes from having done something that you think is wrong. Whereas shame is the feeling when you think you, your very self and soul, is defective or wrong.

And how did we come to feel shame? Well, somebody told us we were wrong without telling us how we got that way or what we could do to fix it. So we deduced that we were wrong, bad, defective, always had been and always would be. The only thing we could do about it was try to lie and hide it from others.

About twenty years ago, PC parents started saying to their children, “Don’t do that.” They never said, “Bad girl!” or “Bad boy!” Or, “You are lazy, stupid, selfish, etc.” In other words, they focused on the action and did not comment on their children’s character. They did not shame their children. I can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like or how I would have turned out if I had not been shamed night and day.

A few years ago I was sick and tired of feeling guilty over every little thing, so I decided on a fool-proof way to figure out whether I was feeling guilty about something in the present or in the past. I would just stop doing wrong things! Guess what? I was having a whole ton of flashbacks.

But shame is different. You cannot make a resolution to stop being a disgusting person. Remember, you were told, explicitly or implicitly, that there was nothing you could do to change. You were born a sorry specimen of a person and would die a sorry specimen of a person. Stuck with it forever, like the color of your eyes or your first language … or your parents.

Looking around, I couldn’t see anybody that I thought had been born that way. Even people who did horrible things, in my eyes, had been groomed since childhood to consider themselves evil and so they acted on that belief. If that is true of everybody else in the world, chances are good it is true for me, too, no?

I had to take another approach to working with my shame. I had to remember times when I was told I was rotten to the core, recognize that what I had been told was a lie, and mourn that I was lied to by people I depended on for my very life. With each wave of grief, the delusion that I was irrevocably horrible became weaker. I cannot say that I am free of the feeling of shame 24/7, 52 weeks a year, but more times than not I am free of it.

I believe you, too, can free yourself of the shame that was wrong fully instilled in you.

If you are in the mood for reading, here are some suggestions –

John Bradshaw: “Healing the Shame that Binds You.” A classic book, written in 1988. Don’t be put off by the discussion of “healthy shame.”

Byron Bown: “Soul without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within.”

Ronald Potter-Efram and Patricia Potter-Efram: “Letting Go of Shame: Understanding How Shame Affects Your Life.” Contains self-help exercises.

Paul Holway: “The Shame Identity: Discover the Truth about Grace.” A Christian approach.