Guilt and Shame: Part Two
June 24, 2014
Well, the first blog about guilt and shame got people talking! Several friends and colleagues even called wanting to talk more about this whole issue!
The most common question that was raised was whether there was such a thing as unhealthy guilt. I’m not sure I have an answer to that, because we have to remember that there is a continuum when we’re dealing with these feelings. However, the most important distinguishing feature is whether the feeling is about what you’ve done or about who you are, your essence as a person. Let me give an example.
Your grandmother is in the nursing home and you have told her you would come visit her. You find a dozen distractions week after week that keep you from going. You start to feel really badly. You know when you finally get there you will hear a quip from your grandmother about how lonely she is and how nobody ever comes to visit her. This makes you not want to go even more. What are you feeling?
If what you are feeling is guilt, it would be because you made a commitment you are not keeping. That is guilt. It is about a behavior. You told her you would come and you haven’t. Perhaps you start to evaluate your values. Do you really believe you should visit your grandmother? Really? If you do, why aren’t you? Your self talk might sound like this. “I hate visiting Grandmother in a nursing home. It is hard to see her not doing well, not being cared for well. I am not very good at doing things that make me feel this uncomfortable. I don’t even know what to say when I get there. And then she’ll make me feel worse by saying I never come to visit her. I promised Mom I would drop by at least every other week. I should want to go! What is wrong with me?” Now you are moving down the continuum into shame. Perhaps you are now telling yourself, “I am a bad granddaughter for not wanting to go visit my grandmother.” You have lost empathy for yourself and you are now shaming yourself. Now you want to go even less! And your thinking is getting rigid and not very creative.
If you could back yourself down the continuum and extend a little empathy to yourself (or talk with a friend who could help you empathize with this situation) it might sound like this: “ It’s not just me. Not many people like going to nursing homes. This is a hard situation. I really do want to go, but Grandma is not even herself anymore. What can I do to help me honor my commitment to her? Perhaps I could ask a friend to go with me? It sure would be easier if I wasn’t alone. Maybe my husband and I could go together and then go out for a meal? Maybe I could combine a visit to grandmother with a visit to that lady I like from church? Wonder if I took some old photographs if Grandma might be interested in looking at them with me? Maybe I could ask her some questions about what mom was like as a child? Maybe she’d like to talk about that?” Extending empathy to yourself and being creative about the problem helps move you back out of the shame and into a healthier place of trying to align the situation with your values. Are any of those feelings unhealthy guilt? I’m not really sure.
There are many studies about guilt and shame and their effectiveness in society. The experience of shame, it seems, has much to do with cultural expectations and gender expectations, so that women have a different experience of shame than do men. What should a woman be like, look like, and act like? What should a man be like, look like, and act like? And if you don’t fit into the expectations of your culture, you might just be battling shame! Remember, we can apologize for something we did. How do you apologize for something you are?
Another way to identify shame is by three other emotions that accompany it: fear, blame, and disconnection. If we are afraid that we will be dumped as a friend, as a partner, or as a family member or community member, we are feeling shame. If we are experiencing blame, either by ourselves or others, we are likely feeling shame.
Dr. Claudia Black, in her book Changing Course: Healing From Loss, Abandonment and Fear, does offer a thought about what she calls false guilt. False guilt is defined as feeling guilty for something that you have no control or power over. False guilt is also defined as feeling guilty for what someone else has done. So one way of naming false guilt is to ask yourself, “Is this something I have any control over? Did I do this?”
More again, soon. It’s a lot to think about but worth thinking about because shame is a destructive, unhelpful emotional state!
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