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.

Constructive Living

Constructive living article sfc solution focused aletheus mark hannan
 Accept your feelings, know your purpose, do what needs to be done.
“The key is not to resist or rebel against the symptoms or to try to get around them by devising all sorts of tricks, that is, to accept them directly as they are without shunning them.”
– Takahisa Kora, MD
Accept your feelings
Accepting feelings is not ignoring them or avoiding them, but welcoming them; Vietnamese poet and writer, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends we say, “Hello Loneliness, how are you today? Come, sit by me and I will take care of you.” Morita’s advice: “In feelings, it is best to be wealthy and generous”, ie, have many and let them fly as they wish.
Know your purpose
Implicit in Morita’s method, and the traditional psychological principles of zen which he adapted, is an independence of thought and action, something a little alien to the western ideal to “follow our whims and moods”. Morita held that we can no more control our thoughts than we can control the weather, as both are phenomenon of most amazingly complex natural systems. And if we have no hope of controlling our emotions, we can hardly be held responsible any more than we can be held responsible for feeling hot or cold. We do, however, have complete dominion over our behaviour, and for Morita, that is a sacred responsibility. “What needs doing now?” is like a mantra in his methods.
Do what needs doing
You can feel crushed and alone or hurt and homicidal while pulling up the weeds in your garden, but you won’t be there at all if you hadn’t intended to raise flowers. Morita’s way of treatment is very different from our western diagnosis/disease model. Morita’s methods lead his ‘students’ through experiments, and in each assignment, the lesson is not explained by a master, but learned first hand, through the doing or ‘taiken’, that knowledge gained by direct experience.
The relation of thought to action is explored with the journal, a random sample taken three or four times each day to note our behaviours and the feelings that accompanied them. We quickly see for ourselves we are not just depressed, or shy, or alone, but all of these and more; something we all experience, but like your computer fan, something we habitually overlook. Within weeks, we see how our feelings are not “being caused by” our situation or our forgotten past, as many conflicting feelings fill the pages. Our log-book dispells any notions we may have of traditional and narrow “personality types”, and does this directly in the context of our everyday life.
Human beings remember about 10% what they read, 20% what they hear, and 90% what they do. In CL, We grasp our lesson by practice in our own gardens, whatever our personal flowers may be. I often met my teacher in the nearby playground where my 2 year old could play while we talked; lessons can easily happen over shopping or apartment hunting. A friend of mine was asked on his first meeting, “What would you do first if you were cured today?” and they went straight out to do it. For Morita’s purposes, in his words, “Effort -is- the good fortune”“Each time you feel shy, it is a new shyness”Our brains change, by some accounts 50 to 60 times per second, and each is a new change, a new configuration … by western pattern-personality standards, it is physiologically a new ‘you’ never seen before. Each moment is a new branch point, a new start exploding with possibilities toward the next new you. We know now our brains do what they do not by the count of cells, but by the connections rewritten on each new experience.“Trying to subdue a wave by striking it only results in a thousand waves”

Kipling’s line on wanting the wisdom to know what can be changed from what cannot echos through the “quiet therapies”. Many exercises taunt us to attempt controlling the impossible. No one has yet asked me to put a camel (or rope) through the eye of a needle, but I swear it cannot be as hard as simply sitting for 20 minutes watching my mind and body!Constructive Living aims at helping a person see the world realistically and act on that knowledge in practical and constructive ways. In assessing any situation a first question that we ask is: what is controllable and what is not? If we hunt for the Constructive Living “bones,” as Santa Rosa, CA instructor Gregory Willms called the ‘essentials of this paradigm,’ a good beginning place is with the issue of controllability.
The question of what is controllable is central to realistic thinking and action. It makes no sense to put effort into controlling what is essentially uncontrollable. And yet, this is what many of us do or try to do. Here we use the term “control” in a quite literal way. Control indicates that something is possible. . .all the time. Having control does not necessarily mean that it is easy, only that it is possible. We use the words “can” and “can’t” to reflect this meaning. “I just can’t seem to exercise lately”. She is not speaking accurately. She actually can exercise; she simply hasn’t recently.Lets look at the list of what is not controllable: the weather, other people’s actions, other people’s opinions, the outcome of events, my thoughts, my feelings, my moods. When we look realistically at life we see that a great deal of it is not directly controllable. What is controllable, then? My own behavior is always controllable. With a very few exceptions (stuttering, trembling and impotence) my behavior, that is, what I do at all times is fully within my control.
Sometimes action is difficult. For example I notice that having the flu as I write this article makes me feel lethargic; it doesn’t, however, prevent my fingers from typing the words of this lesson. Writing is possible. It is behavior. I can do that action, even while “not in the mood.” I do it because it needs to be done.
This can be a startling fact for many of us who have believed that “motivation” of some kind must precede action. What a relief to discover that I need not fix my feeling or my self esteem or my motivation in order to act. Realistically we know that life can’t be perpetually easy, comfortable, “exciting” all the time. As we gain maturity we accept this as reality. The “good news” is that my behavior is in my control at all times. I don’t need to wait for motivation, inspiration, or self esteem to act. I can act on what needs to be done because it fulfills a purpose. I can act now. My behavior is always controllable.
Homework: Pick one action that needs doing on a regular basis: (flossing teeth, walking, doing dishes, changing the cat’s water,etc.) Chose a set time of the day and do the needed action at the same time each day for one week.
More lessons and activities