No-one can make you feel shame without your permission
Two unfortunately large contributors to anxiety, poor mood, and many depressive disorders are the unholy twosome, shame and guilt. It’s easy to confuse the two.
There’s a simple way to tell the difference:
Guilt is about the things we do.
Shame is about who we are.
Is that just a wee bit oversimplified?
Yes, but those definitions serve to fix in our minds that there is indeed a powerful difference between these two feelings—oh, and they are indeed feelings!
Shame brings that horrid feeling that we’ve done something contrary or offensive to our very nature as the unique individual we are, thereby becoming a lesser, less worthy person.
Guilt is the feeling that we’ve done something that in itself was a wrong thing to do. Both these emotions actually do have a place in the broad palette of feelings we as people own.
However, to be utilized appropriate, a person must be able to feel shame or guilt and be able to make amends; that is, make the situation right. If I say something callous to a friend and notice I’ve inflicted pain, my natural feeling is indeed guilt.
But notice what follows next. My next action is to apologize to my friend and make things right between us.
That “making it right” process is often referred to as “making amends,” and we’ll discuss it in a future blog. We are all human beings, and we’re all capable of doing things that are at odds with who we’d like to be.
If our conscience niggles at us, then yes: make amends, and let go of the guilt or shame that was provoking our conscience.
Guilt and shame go rancid when they’re used as weapons against us by others, or when we needlessly self-torture over events that are long in the past, that we cannot affect, or situations wherein no amends can be made.
I felt guilty for years because I left Irish dancing. I left aged 16 as I was getting into other things, and my peers thought it a bit silly—but I felt guilty for years because I felt I’d let my mother (who herself was brought up surrounded in music and dancing) down.
In actuality, she had never given it a second thought. I had tortured myself all of my own accord! As silly as that sounds, that’s how guilt works. Quite often, we inflict it on ourselves.
Shame is often shoved on us by others. Think of poor Hester Prynne who was forced to wear the scarlet letter “A”! Of course, Hester was also publicly shamed by her very public punishment at the stocks. This is what shaming does; it allows and outward standard to humiliate our inner selves.
When someone tries to force guilt or shame on us, there is no reason, none at all we must accept it. We must instead introspect and decide if any part of us deserves such treatment and if so—know that we alone are the authors of how to work it out.
No one can make us guilty; no one can shame us without our permission!
We must become energized by the inalienable fact that we own ourselves and all the emotions, thoughts and actions we have and demonstrate.