Guilt and shame are such strong negative emotions, and it can be so easy and natural to internalize them. I’m surprised I didn’t think to write about them sooner. Guilt and shame can have a major impact on our self-confidence and sense of self-worth. Let’s do some thinking today about how we can lessen the negative effects of these strong emotions in our lives.
First, what’s the difference between “guilt” and “shame”? I tend to think of guilt as being related to my actions – I feel guilty as a result of something I did or didn’t do. Dictionary.com agrees with me, listing one definition of “guilt” as “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined”. The “real or imagined” part, there, I think is pretty crucial. How often do we guilt ourselves over something that didn’t matter, wasn’t that bad, or otherwise isn’t worth suffering over? We imagine that our action is worse than it really is, and cause ourselves unnecessary pain. Even when we’ve actually done something wrong, we often take our guilt too far – it’s good to acknowledge our mistakes, make amends, and learn from our errors, but for some of us, guilt follows us around, continuing to hurt us long after the actual event is over.
Shame, on the other hand, seems to be less about your own actions and more about who you are. Shame carries a judgment with it – we feel ashamed when we perceive ourselves as being dirty, bad, or wrong. The dictionary mostly agrees with my made-up definition, describing “shame” as “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another”. The words “dishonorable”, “improper”, and “ridiculous” all imply an external judgment: the person didn’t have the “painful feeling” until becoming conscious that something will decrease their social standing. Shame is all about accepting those external judgments and applying them to ourselves, punishing ourselves for being different or wrong. Guilt can have a purpose, in making us feel remorse for something genuinely bad, but shame is much less purposeful, inflicting more suffering. Shame worms its way inside you and gnaws at you, sometimes for years.
Shame and guilt often go hand in hand. A child might feel guilty about not studying for a test as well as ashamed that others will think he is stupid when he fails the test. Someone who feels ashamed of being overweight would be more likely to feel guilty over having a slice of cake. In both of these examples, the person feels guilty over their actions, a perceived offense/crime/failure (not studying, eating cake), and ashamed about who they are (“stupid” or “fat”), judging themselves the way they think others will judge them.
So, shame and guilt work together and prey on our insecurities. To fight them in a yogic way, we should strive to cultivate the opposites of guilt and shame: compassion, forgiveness, and self-love. We know rationally that everyone makes mistakes, but we find it difficult to be kind to ourselves when we make mistakes. Being compassionate means forgiving ourselves when we mess up – we still have to examine our choices and learn from our mistakes, but we don’t need to dwell on them. We can let go and forgive, the way that we forgive the people we love when they mess up, and the way we hope they forgive us.
And we know that no one is perfect, that every person on this planet is flawed and has weaknesses, but we don’t want to accept this truth about ourselves. Further, we don’t want to accept that we’re worthy of being loved, flaws and all. Loving ourselves means that we love all the parts of ourselves – not just the smart, strong, pretty parts, but the parts that are weak and sad and small. We can’t grow, learn, or become better people if we don’t recognize and acknowledge our flaws. Someone who dwells in shame, trying to hide the bad things about herself, is suffering more and is less able to grow than someone who accepts her flaws without judgment and loves herself anyway. If we don’t love ourselves, it becomes so much harder for others to love us. Our shame becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: when someone leaves us, we say “See? He couldn’t stand to be with someone like me!” And we miss the point that whatever it is that we’re ashamed of in ourselves – weight, looks, family history, past actions, whatever it is – probably would have been okay with the other person if it had been okay with us.
Pay attention to your inner monologue for a day or two, and notice when you’re feeling guilty or feeling ashamed. Maybe you just feel the feeling abstractly, without any specific event attached to it – this happens to me all the time and it can be really subtle. So notice when you’re feeling this way, and say to yourself, “Hey! What am I feeling guilty about?” Actually examine the feeling and see where it comes from. Maybe you said something silly at a meeting at work or forgot to pack your child’s lunch; maybe someone made a comment that pinged on something you feel sensitive about (for example, a colleague’s thoughtless remark about fat people). When you find yourself dwelling on something like this, take a moment to forgive yourself and to love yourself. Actually say those words to yourself, out loud if you can: “I forgive myself for that. I love me anyway.” Taking a moment to diffuse the negative feelings with positive ones will have an impact on your mood, your day, and your interactions with other people.