by Angela Walters, freelance author and creative consultant
Our emotional scars are nothing to take lightly, and believe me I don’t, but sometimes a simple thing can help us find relief. That’s why I wrote this article, to give you something simple to remember that I hope will help you pinpoint why you can’t seem to move forward.
It won’t get you out of your situation, but if your emotional landscape was a map, this might be the “You Are Here” sticker that you need. And of course, knowing where you are is the first step in getting where you want to go, namely to free you from the destructive nature of shame. Before I reveal the how-to of this, let’s lay a little groundwork by discussing the concepts of conscience, guilt, and shame.
Google conscience and you’ll find that it is pretty universally defined as an “internal cognitive process” or “inner sense.” It’s the warning system that alerts you when you’re about to commit an act that you, on some level, view as ill-conceived or even immoral.
If you go through with it, it’s natural to find yourself wrestling with guilt over that choice. If you’ve been denied explicit forgiveness, or if you feel like you haven’t adequately made amends, or that you haven’t made a positive change in yourself, you might be in danger of having your guilt warp into one or more devastating experiences of shame.
Try visualizing the game of MARRY, KISS, or KILL to move from the concept of conscience to the concepts of guilt and shame. In doing so, the path to shame will look clearer, and you’ll end up finding the healing from it you need.
If you’re looking for helps with shame, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.
Marry your conscience.
Conscience is there to keep you out of situations you know you’ll regret later. It acts as your partner . . . a person who has your back in situations that can cause harm.
Conscience is developed through your personal value system, likely rooted in socioreligious mores. Because of this, you know in advance the mental environment or external consequences you’ll find regrettable if you violate your values. And because the human mind is a marvelous substance, you can foresee when an action is odds-on going to land you in an undesirable place.
Tuning in to the inner warning of conscience with regularity strengthens your conviction to keep tuning in. That’s what makes it so great. As with any beloved spouse, your conscience needs to be nurtured, valued, and listened to. The benefits of a listened to conscience are significant and obvious. The more you heed your conscience, the less you will deal with avoidable guilt and its bastard cousin, shame.
The blue light from your phone might keep you up at night, but your untroubled conscience won’t. Has your conscience become too easy to ignore?
Is this where you’ve been stuck? Work on that.
A lifelong partnership with that little voice inside that tells you when something is a bad idea is a thing worth cultivating. Some might even call it maturity.
Kiss your guilt.
I refer to guilt as a natural response to having actually done something wrong. If you’ve been abused or taken advantage of, what you are feeling is not the guilt that I’m addressing here. You are not to blame. More on that later.
Nobody likes feeling guilty, but it’s part of being human. When you’ve done something wrong, you should feel guilty. Guilt drives us towards Repentance, Recompense, and Reconciliation.
Without guilt, you’d be burning proverbial bridges left and right, messing up one personal relationship after another. Guilt gives you the motivation to apologize and mean it, then to try to fix the wrong and move on with the relationship.
Guilt is a temporary stopping place that serves a specific purpose, like pulling into a Stuckey’s while on a long road-trip. You know you don’t want to stay there, but they’ve got bathrooms and the Original Pecan Log Roll. You do your business, you get your log roll, and then you get out of there. Likewise, with guilt.
You have not used your guilt well if you’re not genuinely repentant. If you’re a serial screw-up, say you cheat repeatedly in romantic relationships, or you make a habit of lying to love ones, or you fail to keep your promises with such regularity even your sister’s toddler rolled his eyes the last time you promised him a trip to the park, chances are the problem is in the repentance stage. You’re not truly sorry.
Of course, you are sorry at the moment of confrontation. After all, you’ve been caught and called out (again), and that sucks. You hate that your loved one is hurting. But the habitual action that caused the confrontation is rooted in something that you have to deal with before you can repent of it, and you have to be ready to do that.
True recompense and reconciliation with others are out of the question until you address those underlying issues, in which case counseling might be appropriate for you. You can get there, to true repentance I mean, if it’s what you want. When you do, you can finish the last two Rs—Recompense and Reconciliation—and kiss your guilt goodbye.
Recompense and Reconciliation
Wondering how to recompense? Let the person you’ve wronged take the lead on that. Ask what you can do. If they say nothing, then do nothing, but stand firm on your apology and commitment to avoid the decisions and actions that led to your guilt in the first place. Don’t make life together weird by being super sorry every time you see them. That can get you stuck, too. Just be cool, and stay intentional in showing people respect and appreciation.
Reconciliation can follow once that person feels heard and respected. It might take a while, so don’t be a jerk by trying to rush the process.
Kill your shame.
Repeat this out loud: Guilt is a temporary stopping place that serves a specific purpose (remember Stuckey’s). Once you have repented, tried in good faith to make things right through recompense, and then made an earnest attempt to reconcile with the one you have offended, that’s it. You’re done. You’ve done your business. Guilt is no longer your load to carry.
There will be times when forgiveness is not offered, or when you are not allowed to make it up to the offended party. There will be times when the relationship is permanently damaged, so it ends. Let that sink in.
Sometimes the relationship ends.
You are allowed to feel sad a while, as long as it doesn’t obliterate your quality of life. You are also allowed to feel angry, as long as that anger isn’t allowed to take over and mutate your hurting heart into a bitter one. But you are not allowed to feel shame, and here’s why. Where guilt was constructive, shame is destructive. Guilt causes you to grow in personal responsibility, but shame stunts your ability to move forward. Shame chains you to a hellish treadmill, stuck in the uphill position, and you forgot your headphones at home.
Shame Is a Bastard
Shame is bad. I call it a bastard, and it is.
Some of us have screwed up so astronomically it feels like life will never be the same again. Even then, shame is inappropriate. Letting that bastard settle into your life is like signing away any possibility for future contentment. Any possibility to do good. To be better. Don’t allow that to happen.
Earlier I mentioned those of us who are not to blame. You are not responsible for what someone else did to you. But you are responsible for what you do for yourself. I urge you to reject shame and to speak out.
Speak out to a professional who can help you, to friends or family who will support you, to the authorities if justice should be served, and to a higher power, if your soul is hurting. Use your voice to kill shame. Even a quiet and shaky voice that speaks truth is a thing of great power.
A lot of us need help to kill our shame, and that’s okay. If this is your struggle, please seek help from a counselor, therapist, or spiritual leader who has been professionally trained to help.
For the rest of us, a pound of prevention is the best approach. Stand by your values and marry that conscience of yours to nurture a lifestyle that avoids most needless mistakes. When you inevitably mess up (hey, we’re human), give guilt a kiss and use it to make you and your relationships stronger, then move on. And if you see the twitching antennae of shame trying to push through a crack, grab a can of Raid and start looking for new emotional ground, because you don’t have to live like that.
If you’re looking for help with shame, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.