I think most of us know the feelings of guilt and shame, I doubt any of us like those feelings. But what does it mean to feel guilt and shame and why does it feel so horrible?
Let’s explore shame and guilt when we feel guilty ashamed, what are we really feeling and experiencing?
When I try to get a felt sense of it, I feel a visceral contraction in my core. There are many layers to the experience; the somatic tension and contraction, the thoughts involved seem to be very harsh and judgmental. An implicit or explicit variation of “ugh what is wrong with you?”, “How could you do that?” “ you are so….” seems to be at the core of those thoughts. The feelings accompanying these though seem similar to disgust, anger and might even have a hateful tone. It feels like someone or something is attacking not just what I have done, not even just part of me but everything that “i” am. Like sword cutting deep to the core, the feeling is many times so unbearable, that our system seems to try to somehow block it out as soon as possible.
It just hurts too much.
Now, in my opinion, the problem with guilt and shame is not just that it feels horrible, but that it prevents us from learning and growing from our mistakes and become aware of our shortcomings and areas of growth in a positive way.
Think of a time when you did something “wrong”, some that bring up feelings of guilt and shame. Being a family and child therapist and a parent, one of the most common themes i encounter is parental guilt and shame. Seems like the more we become aware of how important our role is as parents are also the more we learn all the ways we “could damage and ruin our kids” we learn how we should not yell, spank, lose our tempers, be on our phones all the time, how we should spend quality time with our kids, be patient, be sure they get the best nutrition, get enough exercise, not be on the screens too much, but also don’t be a helicopter parent, let them fail, help them have high self-esteem by praising them, but not praising them too much. All of that on top of possibly working a full-time job, having little support and making sure we also do “self-care”
The pressure is so intense that most parents feel burnt out and exhausted. Also many feel guilty about “not being good parents” and “scrweing their kids up”
When working with parents and as a parent of 2 kids, I see working with and transforming the feelings of guilt and shame as an extremely important one. The reason being gilt feels so heavy that we usually deal with it in 2 ways. Either give in to it and become paralyzed by the pain and depression it causes, or defy it, gets rid of it immediately by distraction or some other means. Now the problem with both these approaches is that we are missing a great opportunity to explore and learn very important things about ourselves if we are able to transform the experience of guilt and shame into compassion and curiosity.
Let’s say the guilt is about how harsh you have been with your kids, maybe you did not spend time with them, maybe you yelled so loudly, after saying things nicely for 10000000 times of course, that you scared the bejesus out of everyone including yourself and the cats, this might or might not have been me. Of course, after you calm down, the first feeling that rushes over is that of guilt and shame, you remember your kid’s faces and how scared they were, and you feel a horrible sense of guilt and shame. Giving into or defying the guilt and shame will not give you an opportunity to learn from what happened. Can you imagine: taking a deep breath, distancing yourself, not ignoring, your guilty feelings. Reminding yourself that you are human and like any other human capable of mistakes, small ones,s and big ones. Imagine reminding your self of all that you are doing “right”, to have compassion for yourself and forgive yourself. It is only then that a transformative door will open. That of curiosity. You might ask yourself, still sensing the forgiveness and compassion, “ why and how I got to that place?” with true curiosity and compassion you might realize that you did not get much sleep the night before, or maybe did not get to eat enough, maybe you overdid it at work and were just burnt out. Whatever the reason or reasons, now you have somewhere to go. You can explore what “went wrong” without judgment and therefore maybe come up with some goals, solutions, or ideas of how you can minimize(not eliminate necessarily) the chances of repeating the same pattern. You therefore might actually have a chance for not only learning from your experience but also about yourself. Maybe you realize that you need to work on certain skills. Compassion and curiosity give you a real chance whereas feeling painfully guilty and then just “promising yourself” that you will never “do that again” is only an attempt to get rid of the pain of the shame and guilt, and gives you no real possibility of change.