Following on from my posts about perfectionism and magical thinking, let’s have a look at guilt and shame, two concepts that loom large in the lives of a lot of us who struggle with our mental health. They are also two concepts that are often confused and, while I actually don’t think it really matters for the purposes of developing a healthy relationship with them, for the sake of academic interest let’s distinguish them.
Guilt is generally acknowledged to be regretting and feeling bad about something one has done, with the focus on the action (or the lack of action, if one feels guilty about having failed to do something). Shame, on the other hand, is feeling that taking (or not taking) that action means one is a bad person, with the focus on hating oneself as opposed to one’s behaviour. Neither is inherently negative, as is pointed out in this article from the BBC. It discusses the findings of some recent American research into guilt and shame proneness and draws attention to several positive aspects of having that propensity. In many ways, this is nothing unexpected: people who know right from wrong, who hold themselves to high standards and are sensitive to the feelings of others, make good bosses, friends, lovers, citizens. Up to a point, guilt and shame serve a useful function in society; they just need to be kept in proportion.
The problem is that guilt – and especially shame – are so often greatly exaggerated by those who had turbulent childhoods, with too much expected of them at too young an age. If, like me, you find it useful to understand how these things happen, you may find this page from Anxiety Care UK sheds some light for you. For this post, though, I’m going to concentrate on how to prevent shame and guilt from ruining our lives.
For many years, my first thoughts as I woke up every morning were the harshest, most withering criticisms of practically everything I had said and done the previous day. This little ritual, conducted before I’d even registered what the time or the weather was, left me cowed and slightly afraid, ill prepared to meet the challenges of the new day. It has taken a great deal of effort to reprogramme myself and there is still the occasional blip, when my internal parent starts whacking me over the head before I even realise what’s happening, but on the whole these days I am free of that paralysing weight of shame. Here is what worked for me:
Don’t go there! It takes a lot of mental discipline and (for me) many months of practice but you can train yourself to put negative thoughts out of your mind. Worrying about something actually does nothing to affect it; the people concerned will have no idea whether you’re thinking about the incident or not – so spare yourself the stress! Let it go; move on.
All anyone can do is the best he/she knows how at the time. This is a concept I learnt in my therapy training and has helped me a lot. Beyond berating myself for everything I’d done the day before, I also used to have frequent mini panic attacks as memories floated back to me from years ago of episodes that induced overwhelming feelings of shame. I now understand that this stuff is just part of life. We all make mistakes and that’s OK. Armed with greater knowledge and experience, I would do things differently now, but at the time I did the best I knew how and nobody can do more.
Look at yourself from a different perspective. Take someone who loves and understands you (if there is no such person in your life right now, imagine someone) and look at yourself through their eyes. If you’re weighed down by guilt and shame, the chances are you’re actually a very decent, thoughtful person, who cares about other people and what they think and learns from mistakes you’ve made. This is great! This is enough. You don’t have to be perfect. Let yourself see what the person who loves you sees in you and cut yourself some slack.