Many people feel shame and want to know what they can do about that awful black feeling inside, with good reason.
Feeling shame is toxic. It affects how a person thinks and feels about themselves, their self-worth, what and who they deserve in their life, and harboring feelings of shame can lead to self-destructive choices and behaviors if not addressed. Shame, however, is not the same as guilt, and not the same as just “feeling bad.” It’s important to sort all of these out before discussing a way to deal with shame.
When you do something or something happens and the outcome isn’t what you wanted it to be, most people will feel bad. You wish the outcome were different. That’s especially true if people are hurt, suffering, or damaged in some way as part of the outcome…even if you didn’t intend any harm and even if you had no control over the outcome.
For example, let’s say you didn’t intend to cause any harm, but you erased a bunch of your co-worker’s work and she’s stressed and upset now. You’re going to feel bad about that (if you’re a good person who cares about the impact of your behavior on others, that is). But even though you feel bad in this instance, you are not guilty of anything.
Feeling guilt is appropriate when you purposely, consciously, and with intent do something to cause harm to someone. If you woke up that morning and decided to erase your co-worker’s work because you were angry with her about some remark she’d made to you, knowing it would cause her great distress, then you should feel guilt about causing her harm.
If you don’t feel guilt about intentionally causing harm to others, you are either a psychopath without a working conscience, or you are a normal human being who has been assigned the task of causing harm to others in a highly unusual situation (such as in the line of work that police officers and soldiers sometimes find themselves. And even in those situations, those individuals often feel bad about doing what they must do.)
Hanging On The Guilt Hook
You can think of guilt as a hook that you are hung up on and have to stay hung up on until you do something to atone for intentionally causing harm to someone. Apologizing, acknowledging that what you did was wrong, doing what you can to make reparations…that’s what gets you “off the hook.”
You can’t really move forward until you do something to make up for the bad thing you did when guilt is appropriately felt. And remember, it’s appropriate for people to feel guilt or guilty when they intentionally try to harm others. It’s one of the ways that our society functions, preventing us from causing harm to each other at every turn and thinking that it’s okay to do so.
When There Is No Hook
But when you are a good person who feels bad about a situation that may be your fault, but there was no intention to cause harm…guilt is not appropriate and there should be no hook that you should be hung up on until you do something to make up for it.
It doesn’t mean you might not do something to try to help others out when outcomes aren’t what you want them to be, even when you didn’t intentionally set out to make them bad, but you don’t have to…not even if others try to tell you that you have to.
Back to the example: your co-worker might try to tell you that you meant to erase her work and that you should have to do XYZ to make up for it, but you don’t have to. It’s your choice. There’s no hook.
I spend a lot of time making sure that the clients I work with are using the word guilt appropriately. If they come in saying “I feel so guilty,” we look at whether there was a conscious intent to cause harm and figure out if what they’re really feeling is bad about an outcome.
Then they can decide if they want to do something about it if anything can even be done. They can also decide how long they want to go around feeling bad about something they didn’t even intend to cause or have any control over.
Shame On YOU
Shame, on the other hand, is a whole other story. Shame, as others have written before, isn’t about what you do.
It’s not just something you’d feel bad about, or feel appropriately guilty about. It’s something that you are. And what you are is bad.
If you are ashamed of something you’ve thought, felt, done, experienced, or was done to you, then you are ashamed of yourself. It will feel as if there is something wrong with you. If you have ever been told “You should be ashamed of yourself.” or “Shame on you.” then you understand this is personal.
And unlike feeling bad, which you can or will stop feeling at some point, or being guilty of something, which you can atone for and get off of the hook by doing something about it, it’s hard to know when it’s okay to stop feeling ashamed about something.
When is it okay to stop feeling the shame of growing up poor, or uneducated, or unattractive? When is it safe to stop feeling ashamed of being sexually molested, or physically abused, or raped? When is the shameful time-out over?
When are you allowed to come out and join the rest of humanity… the good people out there?
People who carry shame within them feel it intensely and feel that others would find them disgusting if they knew their shameful secret, so they often isolate themselves and withdraw from the world of others. If they don’t, they will take great pains to hide the shame and the shameful secret, covering it up, pretending that it doesn’t exist, and avoiding anything that might remind them of it.
The burden of carrying and hiding something shameful limits a person’s range of movement in life, work, love, friendship, risk-taking…pretty much everything that allows a person to really live and thrive and enjoy life.
Shame is a dark, heavy, hidden burden that gets heavier the longer a person goes on. Carl Jung put it this way: “Shame is a soul-eating emotion.”
The Irony of Shame
The most ironic (and also the most important) thing I can tell you about shame is that of all the people I’ve ever known, the people who feel shame intensely and chronically are the nicest, most decent people you’d ever want to know. And truly understanding this phenomenon is the beginning of being able to separate your shame from yourself.
Psychopaths don’t feel shame. They are incapable of it.
You have to care about being a good person, you have to want to be a good and decent person and feel that somehow you have failed horribly in some way, in order to feel and carry shame. Someone molested you when you were a child and you feel dirty, damaged, and you carry the feeling of shame that this happened to you with you now.
You made a mistake and did something you deeply regret and would never do if you had the chance to do it over again, but you feel ashamed of the fact that you did whatever you did and will never forgive yourself, a horrible, awful, terrible excuse for a human being. You were told and believed you were worthless, stupid, fat, boring, unlovable, and are ashamed that you walk this earth the way you are.
Shame In the Petri Dish
Here’s the deal: All the bad things that people said or did to you, all the bad things you have said and done, all the bad things you have had to cope with and survive and witness and experience that hurt you and damaged you…they are like swabs of bacteria on a petri dish with agar.
Agar is a gelatin-like substance used in labs as a growth medium. If you put bacteria or a fungus on it, it will grow on the agar.
The bad stuff that happened to you can hurt you and cause some emotional damage. The things people said or did to you were bad. You are not bad. You can make some bad decisions and choices. You can learn from them. The decisions are bad. You are not bad. The bad stuff is the bad stuff. You are the agar. You are not the bad stuff.
The shame is the result of bad stuff growing on this beautiful, good, benign base…that’s you. The shame is really nasty. It’s toxic. If you let it keep growing on you, completely covering you, you’re not going to want to stick around under all of that crud. And my experience working with people carrying around a lot of toxic shame is that they can become so smothered by it that they really, truly don’t want to live anymore.
They become convinced that they are that nasty toxic mold on the top of the petri dish and it would be better to remove themselves from society than to inflict themselves and their negativity on the rest of us. Which is the biggest shame of all, because the people walking around feeling that bad about themselves are the people we need the most to stay on our planet. We need them to heal and know their true nature.
I mentioned psychopaths being unable to feel shame. It’s like no matter what they do or say to others, or what is done to them, there’s no agar in the petri dish. You can smear bad stuff all over that empty petri dish, and the shame just isn’t going to grow. It doesn’t have the good stuff under it to support it.
Psychopaths don’t care if they cause harm. It doesn’t matter to them. It doesn’t keep them up nights. Serial killer Ted Bundy said “I don’t feel guilty for anything. I feel sorry for people who feel guilt.” You probably wouldn’t have a hard time believing that Ted Bundy didn’t carry around a lot of shame, either. Most people don’t want people like Ted Bundy to be walking around on the planet among us.
The people who feel shame, because of things that happened to them, things that people teased or bullied them about, because of experiences they were forced to witness or endure, because of choices they made they wish they hadn’t now that they know the consequences of those choices…those people aren’t psychopaths. Those people are good people. Those people need to be among us.
Scraping Off The Shame
Healing from toxic shame is a process of learning how to separate the agar from the mold, the inner good human being you are from the crud that has accumulated over time, and you from the shame. Little by little, making the distinction between what’s the toxic shame and what’s the benign person underneath allows that person to scrape the shame off. Therapy helps a lot in this process.
There might be a little discoloration left after all the crud is scraped off. We are all changed by the challenges we have faced, and we are who we are partly because of the difficulties we have been through. That’s okay. We can live with evidence of having survived abuse, molestation, rape, neglect, addictions, poor choices, and self-destructive bends. It’s being able to embrace living that matters. And there is no perfect agar, by the way, even before the bad stuff gets swabbed on.
We all have impurities, imperfections, quirks, problems, and challenges on the absolute best of days, in the best of times, in the best of circumstances…with or without toxic shame. We can live with imperfections, too. In fact, we need to be able to embrace those and work with them in order to live our best lives. If we’ve caused harm unintentionally, it’s okay to feel bad and perhaps do what we can do make things better.
If we’ve caused harm intentionally, it’s appropriate to feel guilt and do something to acknowledge what we’ve done and don’t do it again. But shame? No. We don’t need to live with shame. We don’t need to embrace it. We need to let it go. We need to actively remove it.
We need to scrape it off and give ourselves the chance to live a good life, as an imperfect, perhaps damaged and healing, but unashamed person.
Dr. Anita Sanz, PhD, Psychologist
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