I wrote a blog about guilt and shame almost 2 weeks ago. I have since realized that what I really discussed was guilt and not shame. I had them balled up together like they were one entity. I still think the blog was a good one and gave a lot of suggestions for easing guilt. I just need to go back and change the title to “Guilt” and take “Shame” out of there.
Since I didn’t know the difference (but thought that I did), I will explain it as I understand it so far. 🙂
Guilt is something that you can start feeling at about the age of 3 when you are able to do something and feel badly about it or someone else can make you feel badly for doing something wrong. We do not always own the guilt that is given to us but we are able to feel guilt at that point.
Guilt now seems to me to be the easier of the two to deal with. With a big dose of self compassion, quite often a good therapist or life experiences, we can learn that what we did or was done to us at various ages was either not our fault or it is forgivable.
My guilt was trauma based. I did not yell loud enough, run fast enough, tell enough people, force doctors or social workers to pay attention, run screaming to a teacher… the list is endless but you get the idea.
I have learned that I am in no way responsible for anything that happened to me no matter what anyone says to the contrary.
Guilt is also the culprit when we use words like could or should. I should have known better. I could have been smarter. I should have remained silent. When you look back and feel badly about how you’ve behaved or something you’ve said. That is guilt.
Shame… oh that sneaky snake of an emotion.
Shame begins at birth. Before we are even verbal. Shame is taught to us. Shame is the lesson or lessons that tell us who we are. Have you ever heard someone say “I don’t know why I was even born”? Perhaps you are the one who has said it or thought it? There is a reason it is said. A shame story was put on them in some way in the earliest days of their lives. Mom or Dad may say or feel “I don’t know why on earth I had this baby” or put blame on the baby for restrictions caused by parenthood. A baby can pick that up and it becomes shame story that he or she can feel for the rest of their lives. There are often no obvious words for our shame. We just feel it.
Shame is a cruel gift. Parents or caregivers often think that a pre-verbal child is too young to understand but they are very wrong. Seeds are planted and those seeds will become beautiful flowers if they are kind and gentle but they can also become weeds that are almost impossible to get rid of when the words are unkind or uncaring.
Shame is also the messages that we all pick up throughout our lives. If the base of the person is already damaged, shame given by the world around us is also too easily absorbed.
A child with a good base. A positive beginning can get called stupid because he or she made a mistake and they will often reply with “I am NOT stupid!” They may even run to a trusted adult to tattle on this mean person who called them stupid. How dare they!
A child with a shakier base, a more negative beginning may be called stupid and rather than fight it, they can absorb it. “I probably am stupid.”
Sadly, it is really easy to add to a shame story once it has begun.
Sent in by a reader…
Non-verbal shaming is perhaps the most insidious (as spoken of in the Dr. George Simon quote). You can argue with words but how do you argue with a sneer, a tone of voice, a look in the eyes?
Guilt is external and more easily verbalized “I did something wrong”.
Shame is very difficult to verbalize. “I am wrong.” There is something wrong with me as a person. I am not as worthy as others. I am not good enough in a very deep-seated way.
For me, shame presents itself first in the form of this thought.
“If anyone ever REALLY knew me, they would realize how worthless/horrible/stupid/_____ I really am.”
I have a very deep fear of being outed as a liar and assume I need to hide this trait… even though that trait does not exist in me. I was taught that lesson from my earliest moments in my life and still believe it to this day despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. My husband and good friends have actually said that I don’t lie even when I should. I can be a tad “direct”.
I feel less than… less than everyone else. Everyone comes above me. It takes a great deal of strength and practice to say no without feeling badly or for putting my needs on the chart. At all. Ever. I am working on that one.
I feel unlikable. While others assume that I am happy, chatty and comfortable, I always leave with the feeling that I have likely done something to turn them off of me.
The really tricky thing about shame is that you can KNOW none of this is true but these messages of worthlessness are far more deeply planted than rational thought.
The good news… you KNOW I have to end off with good news right? 😉
I feel that once we have found our shame and find a way to put a name on it, we can start to really question these beliefs. I do not for one second believe that I am suddenly going to get over all my shame filled thoughts just because I finally figured out what they were. It will take time and a lot of positive reinforcement from those who know me telling me what they see in me. Not buttering me up but truthful statements that I know people say to me already. I just have to put more effort in to believing them.
So… I hope you will answer these questions for me silently in your own head. You do not need to admit them to anyone. They are for you only.
Are you worthless?
Are you useless?
Are you deeply and irreparably faulted?
Are you stupid?
Are you selfish or thoughtless?
Are you a liar?
Are you a waste of space?
Are you ugly?
Are you a misfit?
Are you slow?
Now, take a moment to ask yourself this one last question.
Who just answered? You or shame?