How to heal shame and guilt

I felt like a Peeping Tom as I sat in the safety of my car watching the stately, intelligent looking Asian man in a crisp white shirt lose control of himself. An event I feel sure would not have happened had he known anyone was watching.

I was in the parking lot of Best Buy, when the man, his gangly looking teen aged son, and a burley young employee approached the car in front of me. In a matter of fact sort of way, the employee started unloading newly purchased stereo equipment into the car. The son looked on meekly. The father came unglued.

This stereo equipment belonged to the son, why wasn’t he helping the employee unload? The son was once again proving that he was lazy and ungrateful, and quite an embarrassment to his father.

As they got into the car, the father was still yelling and the son was sitting with his head hung, eyes cast down and shoulders crunched up around his ears. I recognized this stance immediately because it is one I see often in my office. It is the body language of shame.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between shame and guilt, but the distinction is important, so I’ll tell it to you now. Guilt is feeling bad about something you have (or have not) done, and shame is feeling bad about who you are. Guilt would be feeling bad about not carrying the boxes, and taking action to correct the mistake. Shame is the conviction that because you didn’t carry the boxes you are somehow flawed as a human being.

Relieving feelings of guilt is not easy, but it can be done. Last week, for example, I said something I regretted to one of my friends. I felt bad about what I had done. I felt guilt. I needed to make amends, so after days of ruminating and rehearsing, I called and confessed to my crime. Once I apologized, and she accepted my apology I could release my feelings of guilt and move on.

Alleviating feelings of shame is a different matter however. When we find ourselves feeling worthless and dishonorable, the typical response is to try to hide our shameful selves. We implode. We try to disappear. Like the young man in the parking lot, we cast our eyes down, crunch in our shoulders and hang our heads.

Videotapes of children in child development studies have found that this same type of body language can even be elicited in infants. If an infant smiles at his caretaker and she doesn’t respond, he will try again. If after several trials she still does not respond, he will avert his eyes and hang his head.

Toddlers demonstrated similar responses when their requests for attention were not mirrored appropriately. In this study when they approached a caretaker to share an interesting toy or an exciting discovery, if the interaction was not meet (at least occasionally) with some attention, the toddlers would slink away with reduced energy that was noteworthy.

Most of us can imagine situations where we were given shaming messages at one time or another. Caretakers are only human; they get headaches; have other children; go to work; get divorced; even die. I think it’s safe to say that every smile or every exciting new toy was not met with unbridled enthusiasm for all of us all the time. It may also be safe to say that at one time or another someone important has even called us thoughtless or lazy because we didn’t load our new stereo equipment into the car, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue to feel ashamed.

The antidote to guilt is to do something different, and the antidote to shame is to give it a thought. If I don’t unload the stereo equipment am I really a bad person, or am I just shy and confused about the protocol? If I’m in a good mood and you don’t smile at me, am I unworthy of the smile or could you just be preoccupied? If I encountered people in my life who told me I was stupid or clumsy or ugly or fat or whatever, does that mean it is still true for me today? However those thoughts got into my head, the antidote is to evaluate my thoughts about them today.

Here’s the process. If you notice yourself feeling ashamed, see if you can identify the event that led to this experience. Did you get a shaming message from someone? Did you give a shaming message to yourself? And most important, is this message helpful to you now?

In his book from the 1800’s, Moral Philosophy, William Paley asks

“Who can refute a sneer?” I would like to hold my head up, look you straight in the eye, and say “I can, and so can you.”