By: Marilyn L. Davis
Guilt Can Motivate, Shame Rarely Does
“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.” ― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Guilt and Shame are Different Feelings
Guilt is the feeling that you have when you realize you have done or not done something, said or not said something, or perhaps unintentionally harmed another.
Shame, however, is the feeling that you are bad, not your behaviors or actions, but you, the person. Guilt motivates some people to change; they feel bad about their behaviors and they want these feelings to stop, so they change.
Shame, however, often paralyzes people. Their distorted opinion of themselves leads them to believe that no one could forgive them for their actions; they think they are so worthless and undeserving of absolution that they often do not try to make amends.
Shame is often a by-product of negative messages from childhood. Alice Miller claims that “many people suffer all their lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt, the sense of not having lived up to their parents’ expectations….no argument can overcome these guilt feelings, for they have their beginnings in life’s earliest period, and from that they derive their intensity.”
Negative Messages: Shame or Guilt?
Many people then become the negative message they heard growing up. This belief that they are not worthy of forgiveness is deeply felt and in many cases, requires professional help to resolve the underlying issues. Other people talk about feeling guilty and do nothing about the behaviors that prompted the guilt in the first place. Only talking about your guilt is counter-productive. Or it may just mean that you are saying this to appease or placate someone, or to gain a better impression of yourself from others if you seem to feel remorse.
Do as I Say, and I Hope You Don’t Catch Me Doing Otherwise
Parents say and do these things all the time. Setting down edicts and requirements that the children must do, yet exonerating themselves for the same infractions.
“Pick up your room.”
- While their room could be used as a photo on the six o’clock news as the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“Don’t have more than one brownie.”
- While they devour three from the pan before they retire for bed.
Only one swig of juice left in the bottle. Parents finish it, sans glass, then commend themselves for putting the carton in the recycles. Clearly if the kids caught them, they might be embarrassed and feel guilty for being hypocritical, but would they do the same thing again? Probably they would – they’d just make sure the kiddies were snoring and in bed.
When Guilt is Insincere
Recently, I wanted some ice cream. Got out the bowl, the scoop and was all ready to have a single serving of ice cream. It looked so tempting, and there was only a single serving, so I ate it from the carton; after all why waste a clean bowl when I live alone, and no one has to eat after me. However, there was a little more than the single serving, so back to the freezer.
Then my grand-kids come over, wanted ice cream and I realized that I have to tell them I have eaten out of the carton. I told them I felt guilty for eating out of the carton, and vowed never to do that again, so they could eat some, too.
Fast forward to a new carton of ice cream; no grand-kids coming for two weeks and this carton, well I will replace it with another before they get here, so I eat out of the carton again.
So just how guilty did I feel, or was I simply stating that I felt guilty to the grand-kids because I knew I should.
If you belong to a religion that has a regular practice whereby you repeat your mistakes and receive directions on an act designed to reduce your guilt, then you already understand and may be using these actions to mitigate your guilt.
Regardless of your religious affiliation, or lack of one, the principle of acknowledging and then changing from the undesired actions works for all of us.
Amends: Direct and Indirect
People will say that they cannot get over their guilt and correct situations because they cannot make direct amends to someone, usually someone who is deceased. If you stole from, maligned, or in any way harmed a person who died, one way to honor them and to help relieve some of your guilt might be to give to a charity that the deceased person valued.
I have one friend in recovery who has donated $100 per year to Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Love Light Tree in honor of her mother for all the times that she stole from her. She did not get into recovery before her mother’s death but was nonetheless appreciative of the help and support that her mother received at the hospice. So her donation is her way of making financial restitution for her thefts and helping others receive care, now that she is in recovery. Making amends to people and institutions can free you of the burden of your guilt when you either publicly or privately acknowledge your wrongful actions.
Guilt produces fear – of exposure, of embarrassment, and disappointment from others. However, deciding to admit what I had done to a group of people seemed less burdensome than carrying the guilt. Guilt is emotional baggage that we do not have to carry around if we change the behaviors that caused it.
Deciding I Would Risk Disappointment to Gain Relief
This quote by Annalee Hopkins motivated me to ask for forgiveness and make amends. “It takes more strength than courage to be accountable for your mistakes. As it takes more courage than strength to realize what you have to be accountable for, to move beyond those experiences and apply the lessons learned in that situation. Only then will you free yourself from the guilt and pain, allowing others to see you for who you truly are – A Beautiful Spirit learning the lessons of the Human existence.”
Prior to my recovery, I would go with my mother to her monthly bridge game if my father wasn’t able to attend. I usually made a beeline to the medicine cabinet of the hosting couple and stole prescription medications.
It was unbelievable to me how many elderly people sprained an ankle or a wrist and got prescriptions for 60 Lortabs. Possibly thinking that they just might need one for something else, they just left them in their medicine cabinets. I did not take the bottle; not out of any sense of consideration for an unanticipated pain, but just enough that I hoped they would not notice some missing. I thought that this way, I would not be questioned about the theft.
When I got into recovery, I felt guilty for my actions and contacted all the couples in the bridge club. I felt relief when I was honest and made amends. Secrets have a way of growing and producing more guilt and making amends freed me of some of the burdens of guilt.
Amends are What They Need, Not What is Convenient for You
When I asked what I needed to do to correct the situation, one of my mother’s friends asked me to speak to her daughter who was abusing alcohol. In speaking with her daughter, she mentioned that her mother always thought she took the pills, so she was glad that I confessed.
We talked about her guilt over actions that she did as well. She committed to enter rehab and now has almost 22 years in recovery. We still use our respective stories to help others find a different path and reinforce that guilt prompted both of us to make significant changes in our lives.
When I weigh out how heavy the guilt is, I am often motivated to do something about it. I found the burden of guilt more than I was willing to carry, so I confessed. I got surprising outcomes that continue to enrich my life today.
Avoiding Only Adds to the Guilt
I have been in long-term recovery now for 28 years, and firmly believe that when I avoid a situation, person, or subject, there tends to be guilt attached to some of my behaviors.
Although I no longer steal medications, other behaviors cause a twinge today.
A friend going through a rough patch and I hear about it, but do not bother to pick up the phone, rationalizing that I’m too busy to listen. Unfortunately, days might go by, and then I feel guilty that I did not reach out when I knew that was the correct thing to do.
Recently, I heard that a friend was dealing with some health issues; we talked about them, but I did not follow-up on the day that she was to get her results.
Given how many times this person has listened to me, been a shoulder to cry on, or just been a friend, I felt guilt. Rather than add to the weight of the existing guilt, I sent a text and set up a specific time to talk.
Develop Emotional Balance with Amends
There are times that a direct amends is not possible, but you want to own responsibility for your actions and acknowledge the harm you have caused another.
In some cases, a letter is enough, even when you cannot send it to the injured party. This approach works well for those who are deceased, or for those that you would harm further with a direct amends.
There are also those people who have harmed us and would do so again with a direct amends. Yet, we owe them for our actions as well.
Either burning the letter and watching the smoke drift out into the universe with the amends message, or sending the message on a environmentally safe balloon works well.
Regardless of the method you choose for making amends, if you’re like me and thousands of others, you’ll be surprised at the results of this action.
Writing, and recovery heal the heart.
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