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 misbehaved, 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. We’ll often say that we feel bad because we did or didn’t do something.
When we realize that we feel bad about our behaviors, we make an effort to change them. 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 often requires professional help to resolve the underlying issues in many cases.
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
Parents say and do these things all the time. Setting down edicts and requirements that the children must do, yet exonerate themselves for the same infractions.
“Pick up your room.”
- But if you look at their room, it could be on the six o’clock news as the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“Don’t have more than one brownie.”
- But when the kids aren’t around, they devour three from the pan before they retire for bed.
So, there’s 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 check that the kiddies were in bed and sleeping soundly.
When Guilt is Insincere
Recently, I wanted some ice cream. I 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. I rationalized that I didn’t have to 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 container and vowed never to do that again so that they could eat some, too.
Does My Guilt Prompt Different Behaviors?
Fast forward to a new carton of ice cream; no grand-kids are coming for two weeks and this carton, well I will replace it with another before they get here, so I eat out of the container again.
So? How guilty did I feel, or was I merely stating to the grandkids that I felt guilty because I knew I should.
If you belong to a religion with a regular practice whereby you repeat your mistakes and receive directions on an act designed to reduce your guilt, you already understand and might 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, insulted, or harmed a person who died, one way to honor them 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 by taking her medication as she was dying.
Recovery Makes Amends Possible
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. It is her indirect amends to her mother now that she is in recovery.
Guilt produces fear – of exposure, 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.
I Risked 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.”
Before 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 how many older adults 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 Just “I’m Sorry”
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 entering rehab and now has almost 22 years of recovery. We still use our individual stories to help others find a different path and reinforce that guilt prompted both of us to make significant changes.
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 Adds to the Guilt
I have been in long-term recovery for 31+ 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.
I recently 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 guilty. 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 direct amends are 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 direct amends.
There are also those people who have harmed us and would do so again with direct amends. Yet, we owe them for our actions as well.
Writing a letter and then burning it, watching the smoke drift out into the universe with the amends message, or sending the message on an environmentally safe balloon works well.
Write, inflate, then launch. The message will get out there.
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 heals the heart.