Guilt and Shame; Exposing their secrets is a way to heal

Painting by Omar Abbas, Eastern Carolina University

“If guilt is about behavior that has harmed others, shame is about not being good enough.”

Often guilt and shame are confused, misunderstood, and therefore minimized, repressed, or swept aside completely. The best writing on the topic appeared in the Atlantic Monthly February 1992 in a lengthy article simply titled Shame, by Robert Karen. Much of this writing is a paraphrase and quotation of that article interspersed with my own process of healing and the re-writing my life story – past and present.

When I read this article my life changed, forever. I was able to begin a process of healing. The Catholic church, through its thorough and constant indoctrination, convinced me that I should be ashamed and feel guilty – not just for what I may have done, but for who I am. The concept of original sin is the starting point – we are born with a blotch on our soul – we come into this world tainted already – we are guilty of sin before we can open our eyes and clearly see our caretakers.

The roots of shame and guilt are deep in our society. And, it isn’t just the Catholics that have perpetuated and contributed to the malignancy of these two different though related states of being and feeling.

First though, let’s get some definitions in place:

Guilt: Guilt is the anxious self-reproach you experience after you sleep with a friend’s spouse, cheat your brother out of his inheritance, or stand by as a colleague is fired for your error. In the grip of severe guilt, you feel tormented by the idea of a debt that must be repaid, and until atonement of some kind is made, life itself may seem suspended.

Shame: Shame is often, of course, triggered by something you have done, but in shame, the way that behavior reflects on you is what counts. Shameful behavior is thus a victimless crime: and shame itself is less clearly about morality than about conformity, acceptability, or character. To be ashamed is to expect rejection, not so much because of what one has done as because of what one is.

Reading this for the first time brought me to tears and as I write it now I can feel them welling up again. I learned that I was living a life based almost entirely on shame – economic, social, personal, political, psychic – it was that pervasive in my home, at school, in church, in advertising and on TV. All of this made it’s way to the streets as well. Being the shamed one made me a target for taunting and abuse – I became a victim even further. It was a vicious cycle that I could not seem to break or break away from. The saddest, most hurtful and painful aspect of this is that looking back I see that I had nothing, no-thing, to do with how I was perceived or perceived myself as a bad person. I had been convinced by all that was around me, the blatant and the subtle signals, that I was a person who should be ashamed of existing.

“Shame is about the ‘self’. We say, I am ashamed of myself. I am guilty of something. Guilt is out there in the real world, something you did or something you thought that you shouldn’t have thought. Shame is only about the self.

For guilt one can find a solution. One needs to make amends. What does shame require? It requires that you be a better person, and not be ugly, and not be stupid, not be poor, not be gay or lesbian, not be non-white, and not have failed. The only thing that suits it at this moment is for you to be nonexistent. That’s what people frequently say. I could crawl into a hole, I could sink into the floor, I could die.”

What are you feeling as you read this? Your feelings will clue you into the level of shame you may have. Or, help you recognize the shame others carry.

Professionals, for the most part, have avoided discussing shame. “People are ashamed of being ashamed. So we don’t talk about it, we don’t express it, and we don’t acknowledge it. We say we’re uncomfortable, or ‘It was an awkward moment’ – these are the code words for shame.

Shame and anger have a deep affinity. Men, for instance, may be more ashamed of shame than women, especially given the performance pressures that are typically placed on them and the expectation that they will rise above fear, pain, and self-doubt. They therefore may be more invested in suppressing it. And, we know what is suppressed must be expressed in another way. Anger tends to be the way. This leads to abuse of all kinds, which inurn leads to more shame – unconscious shame for the man and now conscious shame for the victim of the abuse. Sexual and physical abuse are guaranteed by their nature to produce excessive shame.

“As painful as shame is, it does seem to be the guardian of many of the secret, unexplored aspects of our beings. Repressed shame must be experienced if we are to come to terms with the good, the bad, and the unique of what we are.”

How we express the shame we carry is as unique as we are individuals. Shame and secrets are the closest of siblings – the one rarely strays from the other. Exposing the secrets of our lives seems to me the easiest way. To articulate those things that we think should be left unsaid is a start. First in writing seems safest. Verbalizing may take time and courage.

If you make a list of secrets you have about yourself and your family you will start to see the shadows of shame. You may have to coax shame out of those shadows and into the light to see them more clearly. Some examples might be:

“I come from a poor family and sometimes didn’t have enough food to eat. Today, I rarely ever talk about my growing up and if anyone asks I am vague about it and can usually re route the conversation.”

“My parents didn’t have much education, weren’t too sophisticated, so I didn’t bring friends over too often, especially friends whose parents I knew were professionals.”

“My cousin is a lesbian. We don’t tell anyone about it. In fact we never have actually acknowledged the fact or even said the word in relation to her during any family conversation. We usually make a spinster joke or say she is more concerned about her career.”

“I never wear short sleeves because people would see the scars on my arms from when I tried to kill myself. People don’t need to know and anyway it is none of their business.”

There are so many other secrets we keep about ourselves and our families. These are merely a few examples. Once you have made a list, you could rank them as to the importance of keeping the secret – 1 being the most closely held and 10 being the least closely held secret. Then, think about how you talk about #10 if at all. Think about what you think would happen if someone were to find out. Is it a rationale possibility? Does it matter, really, what they think?

Evaluate each secret as to the value of keeping the secret, the amount of shame attached to that secret and, most of all, the level of angst, depression, inaction, pain, etc keeping the secret and the shame has for you. Is it worth it compared to your happiness and well being? Who benefits by keeping the secret and the shame? And, what exactly are the benefits – specifically?”

These are some questions you can ask. Also, using the Tarot is a way to look at a secret in a creative way, to work with the inherent shame in your secrets. Let the form of the spread and the concept of the cards help you evaluate the value and validity of the secret and it’s impact on you.

When we release the secrets and the shame we make the energy used to suppress available to garner happiness and contentment. Freedom is all about freeing up the natural and abundant energy available in the universe. Freedom allows us to float in the energy fields unencumbered. The bounty is ours and we are the bounty if we allow the flow.

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