Guilt ≠ Shame

The weekly writing prompt over at Just. Be. Enough. was “What are you striving for?”  Of course, my knee jerk reaction to that is, “What am I NOT striving for?”  I strive for dozens of things and I’m sure you do as well.  But the first thing that came to mind when I read the prompt was that I strive to reject mommy guilt.  You know, the thing I was just writing about last week?

It’s something I’ve really had to struggle with.  Not only mommy guilt, but guilt in general.  When I was young, I was paralyzed by guilt, and it continued to keep hold on me well into adulthood.  People would tell me I sucked either because they didn’t like something I did, or because they just wanted someone to dump on.  And because I knew I wasn’t living right, and because I had poor self-esteem and so on, I just accepted it most of the time.

When you have a guilty conscience, whether or not you have really earned it, you are easy prey for people who want to manipulate you.  And unfortunately, people like that are not in short supply.  I felt guilty about everything.  I would procrastinate, and then feel so guilty about having procrastinated that I would never get around to doing what I had been putting off.  I realize that doesn’t seem to make sense.  It actually doesn’t.  But that was my life when guilt was running the show.

It was so bad that I eventually discovered that guilt, that thing that was supposed to be healthy, that was supposed to motivate me to change, was crippling me.  It was not only crippling me, but it was actively standing in the way of trying to make healthy changes.  I couldn’t remember any mistake I had ever made without berating myself for it.  And you can’t change without acknowledging what it is you have been doing wrong.  And of course I would feel guilty when I would screw up again after I started trying to do better.

So I decided to reject guilt.  It would come at me and I would just list all the reasons why I didn’t know any better than do what I did, or what extenuating circumstances kept me from performing optimally.  And then sometimes I just reminded myself that I’m a human being, that we are all flawed and just screw up sometimes and it doesn’t make us bad or unworthy of love and respect.  If none of that worked, I would try a technique I learned from a coworker.  I would tell guilt that it was irrelevant.

When I did wrong, I would tell myself not to dwell on it, that I could only move forward and try not to make the same mistake again.  This requires constant vigilance on my part.  The voices in my head are relentless sometimes in telling me how worthless I am because of something I’ve done.  I am very active in my defense of myself, and sometimes I wonder why this is still going on.  I wonder why it continues to come up, when I haven’t uncovered any new mistake I’ve made.

I am reading “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown right now.  It’s just an amazing book and I highly recommend it.  In one of her chapters, she talks about the difference between guilt and shame.  I thought, “Whoa, wait a minute here, you mean that guilt is not the enemy?”  This was quickly followed by, “Wait a minute… She’s saying that guilt and shame are not the same thing!”  And I realized that I could have, at any time, given a textbook definition of guilt and of shame that were not exactly the same.  But I cannot say I have ever experienced guilt without also experiencing shame.

I struggled with this.  I just couldn’t fathom how you could feel as though you had done wrong without also feeling that you wish you could hide it from the world.  I have no experience of guilt which does not tell me I am bad and unlovable.  I can understand that these things are not one and the same, but even understanding that doesn’t separate them in my experience.

And I wonder if it isn’t time to rethink my approach.  Perhaps I am doing myself some kind of disservice by rejecting guilt.   Should I work at rejecting shame instead?  And when we do talk about/experience mommy guilt, are we all experiencing mommy shame instead?  And how would one reject shame?  Guilt is something you can put on trial and plead your case.  But shame is an essentially irrational emotion.  All it has is, “You are not lovable.  You do not deserve love/friendship.  You must hide at all costs.”

Does what I’m saying resonate with you?  How do you deal with shame?  How do you deal with guilt?



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