Guilt gets a bad rap. This idea may raise some eyebrows. Perhaps, I’ll even get a few angry comments for validating that funny sinking sensation we get in our stomachs when we feel bad about something we have done. Or maybe we didn’t do it, but we thought about doing it…or maybe we did it, but we didn’t do it well enough, or . . . you get the idea.
As Jews, or as fellow travelers in the Jewish community, we cannot help but to encounter guilt as a cultural archetype. Guilt has even become a verb, as in: “I really didn’t want to go to the ‘Tribute to the Career of Debbie Reynolds’ film festival, but Bubbe guilted me into going with her.”
We love to complain about guilt, except when we are joking about guilt. Maybe we sometimes even feel guilty about feeling guilty. But guilt isn’t really the problem that we have been taught it is. In fact, guilt can actually be an opportunity – and no, I don’t mean just an opportunity to feel bad! It all comes down to a matter of definition.
Very simply, guilt is when we feel bad about our actions. It is the realization that we are not living up to our own standards of behavior, that we are not walking our talk. When we notice that we have fallen short in our actions, we have the opportunity to learn from the experience. It’s okay to make mistakes, especially when we learn from them. If our actions hurt another person, we can attempt to repair the harm we caused. (Last September, I blogged about making amends at Project You.)
Because guilt is related to our behavior, there is something we can do about it. What we do is not the same thing as who we are, which is where I believe the real problem begins for most of us. And that problem isn’t guilt – it’s shame.
Feelings in the Shadows
Shame is the shadow side of guilt. It’s not about our behavior; it’s the experience of feeling bad about who we are. Shame is when we feel inferior, unworthy, unlovable. Sometimes we feel shame that is triggered by our actions, but we can also feel shame because of how others behave toward us. The messages we get throughout our lives from other people about the way we look, our ethnic or religious identity, our sexuality, even our gender can result in us developing a deep, ingrained sense of not quite being okay just the way we are.
Shame is a common human experience. It’s a natural part of being self-aware, feeling, and alive. But sometimes shame can throw us off balance. Feelings of shame often exist outside of our awareness, only to flare up when some external event triggers their return to our consciousness. When shame builds up and we don’t express the feelings in a constructive way, our self-esteem suffers. If we hold on to shame that is not appropriately ours, there is nothing positive for us to learn from the experience. For example, shame that stems from other people’s feelings about who we are presents us no opportunity to grow. This is what is often referred to as toxic shame and can become an impediment to living a happy, healthy life.
While guilt can serve a constructive purpose, shame rarely does. Under the best of circumstances we learn to recognize, tolerate and deal with feelings that we are not okay. But it’s obviously never our life goal to experience all the shame we can!
Guilt or Shame?
Since the feelings of guilt and shame can be so intertwined, it is often hard to recognize just what is going on when we get that sinking feeling in the stomach. A good rule of thumb for understanding if shame is rearing its ugly head is to pay attention to your gut-level reactions.
If you are experiencing very strong feelings about making a relatively minor mistake, shame is probably in the mix.
If you find that your internal dialogue with yourself contains phrases such as “I never can….,” or “I hate that I….,” shame may be at work.
If you find that you frequently change your behavior or edit your statements in order to avoid making other people feel uncomfortable, then you may be experiencing shame about some aspect of who you are.
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by considering the ways in which guilt and shame play out in your life, relax. You’ll be fine. Remember, we all experience these feelings. So, what can we do about them? We can accept guilt and shame as part of life. We can strive to be mindful of how we’re feeling, and learn to treat ourselves more gently. Perhaps most importantly, we can feel empathy for others who are experiencing their own guilt and shame. Maybe that’s why all those old guilt jokes endure – laughter is indeed a helpful remedy for so many uncomfortable moments.
A Helpful Resource – A simple website with some helpful thoughts about dealing with shame.