Travelling the Alphabet — G is for guilt and its twin — shame.
SO similar in some ways, and yet so very different, these two emotions can make or break lives if they get out of control. They can certainly spoil them on a regular basis.
The basic difference is that guilt is feeling bad about something you have or have not done, and shame is about you and your general unworthiness because of what you have or have not done.
Guilt first. You can feel generally good about yourself but if you ‘ let yourself down’ in your own terms of what you judge as valid or not appropriate behaviour then you can make yourself feel pretty guilty. This is far less harmful that feeling utterly worthless because of who you and everything you do or do not do at any one time.
Guilt can be assuaged by humility and asking for forgiveness or making restitution.
But they can both do you harm and prevent you from taking responsibility for your choices, actions, and emotions.
I have been told and read elsewhere that a little guilt can be good because it acts as a marker, an internal judge or monitor, keeping you on the good path, not letting you fall into bad habits. See if you agree by the end of my argument. I disagree (of course). Personal development and growth is never benefitted by negative emotions and it is often blocked by guilt and shame. We can become defensive and justify our decisions and choices to show that we were not mistaken. We seek to nullify our guilt and shame b denial, rejection of other points of view and similar tactics, instead of dealing with them as root source.
It comes back to being prepared to be wrong which takes humility and honesty, versus being right and defending one’s ego sense of honour. Guilt and shame makes you less able to stay open and adaptable unless you are extremely open already in which case it is not really guilt or shame that has got you but a realisation that you have made a mistake and have a desire to rectify it.
Let us use an example
Dilemma: A wants to take a holiday for Christmas but there are conflicting demands on their time and resources. There are others who want A and family to go with them and elderly family people who will be left behind and mostly alone.
Choices : –
-takes holiday and enjoys it knowing they can make it up to those others in their own time and that by taking breaks they are taking care of themselves so they are better able and refreshed to take care of others at other times
-doesn’t take holiday — and feels slightly or majorly regretful and trapped by person who represents those responsibilities
-takes holiday and ruins it by feeling bad about it so can’t enjoy it or get the break they need from the usual routine and possibly even harbours some resentment against person who needs care.
-takes holiday and feels ashamed at their own selfishness but feels guilty about putting themselves first when they have an elderly relative or sick friend to take care of.
-takes holiday or doesn’t take holiday but feels ashamed of even thinking they had a right to take holiday.
-rebels against all the guilt and shame, takes holiday defiantly and pretends madly that they are really having a great time, but can’t enjoy it because too busy self-punishing. Regrets decision to go and spoils it for everyone else too.
SO if you take the holiday without resolving the emotional conflict you only spoil the holiday, even if it is just a slight nagging doubt
We all have to make choices in life and often they are not clear cut. Sometimes it is appropriate to put yourself on the bottom of the needs list and sometimes it is essential that you are at the top of it. Knowing when to do each leads to a pretty guilt and shame free life and these are the reasons for that understanding. Mindfulness practice help us to recognise, understand and manage our conflicts. It allows us to clear our minds and be free from extraneous voices so that we can make choices freely.
We have to take care of our self, first and foremost, so that we do not become a burden for others when we have burned out, or we start letting people down because we are just too tired to do it all. If we self -care then we are more able to meet the needs of those less able and less independent than us such as elderly and sick friends and relatives, young children etc.
To heal from an overdose of either you must take responsibility for yourself and our internal processes, thoughts, feelings, belief systems. All these are ephemeral no matter how real they feel and all can be changed if we choose to. Sometimes shame especially is so ingrained that we feel it is impossible to change that outlook, but with mindfulness we can begin to see how mistaken and damaged that original emotional position is and was and we can start to allow ourselves to believe something different. It is ultimately our own choice but it takes some considerable effort to re-programme our brains to be self-accepting and self-compassionate and to take responsibility for our-selves. It is a gradual process that we have to take in steps, gradually shifting and challenging those thoughts that keep us unhappy and unable to enjoy life to the full.
Now I want to put it from the other perspective. You are the person who is causing the conflict about this holiday. You probably don’t know about it since we can all be very good at concealing our true feelings and sometimes that might be appropriate, but would you want to be the cause of such conflict in someone else. It demeans the gift of their time and makes you a nuisance or burden in their life. I know I would hate that to the tips of my toes. I don’t want to be patronised in this way. I want to be valued and if someone spends time with me it is because they like me and want that, not ever out of duty. I would never do anything out of duty but because I choose to and then I have no guilt, can say I will do this and not that and everyone knows where they stand.
If you are someone who likes to use duty arguments to get what you want out of people, think how much more delightful it might be to know that instead of extraction you have been given a true gift of someone’s love and time. Manipulating through guilt makes you a burden and although you might get what you want superficially, deeper down you have destroyed what you really wanted, what we all want, which is to be loved and valued. You have turned the manifestation of that love into a bribe, a threat, a duty and a punishment.
Once you understand this principle then you know never to do that, to yourself or another person.
When you decide to do everything from choice, and nothing more than that- you are free from the ego’s desire to measure your actions, to judge your choices and to decide if you are good or not good. All of that disappears. Instead you can just get on with the job of carrying out your choices. But you will find they are all suddenly much easier and freer, take less energy, are never a burden or a chore. There is just you, your body and the choice you have made. It is free and easy to do anything when that choice is the place of activity. Only guilt and shame burden you down with resentment or regret for anything.
The other time you may feel guilt or shame is after the event, if you have reason to regret behaving in some way or making a choice that you wish hadn’t happened. Again ask yourself if the guilt or shame is going to make that past event any better.
Instead you can let go of the guilt and shame and just make better choices in that present moment of realisation: to forgive yourself, to learn from the event how not to make that same mistake again, and to either make restitution or to move on.
Ultimately you have to forgive yourself for being less than perfect. One you can accept that then the guilt and shame are also easier to let go of. Once you are free from this pair of nasties then you can be the best version of yourself because you are no longer twisted into knots and thus you are genuinely generous and happy in your life and gifts to others.
On a personal note I distrust anything done from duty or social expectation. I distrust it because I wonder what their real motivation might be. What might they be buying from me, negotiating, what am I getting into, will be expected to respond or return with. All of these are the outcomes of duty instead of loving free will. Choosing loving free will works for everyone, mindfulness makes it all so much easier to work with.