Guilt and shame are similar enough that they’re often mistaken for one another, but they’re not at all alike. Remember the old Sesame Street jingle, one of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same…
If you’re divorced, then you are more than likely dealing with guilt. If you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist or one that was abusive, you're probably carrying around a lot of shame, which is totally different.
- Guilt is regret about something you’ve done that was wrong–a mistake. It says: I did.
- Shame is the feeling that you are a mistake. You are inherently bad. It says: I am.
One is healthy and normal. The other is not.
Why Guilt Is Healthy
Guilt is our heart’s way of telling us that we’ve crossed the line. It helps keep us in check. It’s part of your character. Guilt is what makes you feel badly enough about something you’ve done that you are aware of the need to change your behavior, make restitution, and make better decisions in the future.
Guilt makes us aware of our imperfections and leads us to look for solutions. Once restitution is made to the best of our ability and our behavior has changed then guilt will fade away. It’s done its job.
Why Shame Is Unhealthy
Shame is different. Shame whispers, “You’ll always be like this. You are a screw up. You’ll never be able to change, you awful person.”
Shame separates us from others by making us feel like we are unworthy, damaged goods, and unfit for human companionship. During my first marriage I felt like such a screw up that I imagined myself limping through the grocery store, arm over my face, and shouting, “Unclean! Unclean!”
I felt guilty for the mistakes I made, but I also felt shame for the things that I couldn’t change in my marriage. I believed that if I worked harder, changed more, and were somehow more of who he wanted me to be things would magically be fixed. I failed to acknowledge that we are each responsible for our own emotions and responses. I can never be able to be “enough” to change someone. I can never be so much that I overwhelm someone.
Trying was making me sick.
Shame causes all of us to distance ourselves from others and avoid healthy change. It’s not uncommon if you are in an abusive relationship that you are staying there because of shame. It is too painful to look at reality, so you live in a constant state of denial.
Simply put: while guilt mobilizes, shame paralyzes.
That Freaking Inner Voice
I deal with shame a lot. Realistically, I know it’s silly, but deep down I feel like I am a curse, not a blessing. When my new husband lost the job he’d had for 22 years a few days after we got engaged, I knew it was my fault. No matter how much I realize with my head that this is ridiculous, my Freaking Inner Voice (FIV) doesn’t listen to reason. Every time we hit a rough spot in life, whether it is financial or whatever, FIV starts in on me.
- It’s your fault.
- It wouldn’t have happened if he’d been married to someone good.
- If you made more money then he wouldn’t have to work so hard.
FIV will bring you down. It is the most destructive force in your life. Do you realize that? Depression, anxiety, and shame all feed on the trash that FIV hands out and in order to heal you need to put an end to those destructive free meals!
Who Is Your God?
Don’t answer this too quickly. Whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Agnostic, Hindu, Atheist, Wiccan, Animist or whatever, you have a god. It is that power that you feel responsible to–and for far too many of us society is our real god despite what we do on Sundays!
As a Christian I say that God is in control of my life and that His opinion of me is what matters, yet shame tattletales on me and says that I am far more concerned with what society (and FIV, of course) says about me.
Moving Beyond Shame
So, you’ve agreed that there is shame in your life, and you want it gone? Now what?
Although there are no easy answers, there are some steps you can take. You might also want to seek professional counseling to help you work through it.
First you have to kill off FIV. Every time you shame yourself, you increase the hold that shame has on your life. Things like:
- You are so stupid!
- Why did you do that?
- What an idiot!
- You look awful, as usual!
You know what I am talking about. It’s time to change those comments to positive things. Until you do that, nothing else will change either.
Next you have to find value in yourself. Start noticing things you do well and compliment yourself on them. It isn’t going to make you stuck up. One of the most common things that most women I know struggle with is knowing their value. You are not less valuable because you are divorced, overweight, middle aged, or whatever. You are valuable because you’re you!
Most of all, be as respectful of yourself as you are of others. Do the actions, and the feelings will follow. You aren’t the only one who’s been in this spot. Join First Wives World and talk to others who understand your battles.
Image Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, User : Giselda Giardino