SHAME AND GUILT
Shame is not the same as guilt.
When we feel guilt, it’s about something we did.
When we feel shame, it’s about who we are.
When we feel guilty we need to learn that it’s OK to make mistakes.
When we feel shame we need to learn that it’s OK to be who we are!
WHERE SHAME COMES FROM
Shame comes from being taught that we are worthless or bad or something similar.
It comes from adults who say things like:
- “You’ll never amount to anything!”
- “You are worthless!”
- “I wish you were never born!”
- “Shame on you!”
It also comes from severe physical “discipline”
since each hit of the hand or fist or belt or stick says to the child:
“You don’t matter at all.
Only what you do matters!”
Shame also comes from being humiliated for our behavior.
It comes from adults who say:
- “What would the neighbors think of you if they knew…?”
- “You look ridiculous!”
- “Don’t you have any pride?”
- “What’s wrong with you anyway!?”
And it also comes from being threatened with shaming, or physical discipline, or humiliation.
When we are threatened with these things, the psychological message is the same:
“I can and will treat you any way I want to. You are a worthless weakling at my disposal!”
WHAT HAPPENS TO PEOPLE WHO ARE SHAMED?
People who are shamed have to live in the same world as all the rest of us
but they have to live in it with the deep-down conviction that they are worthless.
The amount of continuous pressure a deeply shamed person feels is immense.
When they are doing well, they think it’s only a matter of time before they are discovered as useless.
When they make mistakes, they expect a terrifying degree of anger from the people they disappoint.
Every act is a “test” – and they are convinced that it’s only a matter of time before they fail completely.
LIVING IN SHAME AND LIVING “AS IF” YOU ARE O.K.
Some people who are convinced they are worthless live out their lives to prove they are worthless!
The most severe alcoholics, drug addicts, and impulsive criminals of the world are some good examples.
Like all of us, they have a deep need to be known and to be seen
and to be “recognized for who I really am.”
But since they actually believe they are worthless,
they have a strong need to prove their worthlessness to everyone in their lives.
They don’t hurt their families and friends because they don’t love them or because they want to hurt them.
They hurt their families and friends out of this need to be known – and the wrong belief that they are worthless.
Most people who are convinced they are worthless live out their lives trying to prove they do have worth!
These are the people who are constantly worried about what you think of them,
and who constantly think that you are judging them.
When you tell them they did a good job they feel good for a few minutes,
but they soon feel worthless again
and think that you wouldn’t like them “if you really knew them.”
If you tell them they did a poor job they will either feel a strong urge to cry
or they will show an immense amount of anger at you for saying such a thing!
They don’t understand you are only commenting on the last thing they did.
They think you are commenting on them, and on their worthlessness as human beings.
People who’ve been deeply shamed need to be fully loved and accepted and valued.
Some people find a lover who deeply accepts, loves, and values them.
Others find a group of friends who deeply accept, love, and value them.
Most people need a therapist along the way who also shows them their value,
and who, perhaps more importantly,
helps them to stop all the repetitious self-talk about their lack of worth.
Every person who is overcoming shame will need to have many sources of love and acceptance.
One lover or friend or therapist is never enough.
The more totally they can trust these new sources of love in their life,
the more deeply they will accept the love they need.
(The love of less trustable people is also valuable, of course – just not nearly as valuable.)
Overcoming shame takes a long time.
But it is well worth it for the moment when the deeply shamed person finally says
with unmistakable surprise and amazement in their voice:
“You know, I really am a good person!”