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The Bright Side Of Shame – Part II

The Dynamics of Guilt and Shame

            How is it that the experience of shame could be identified as the source of our paralysis when the greatest expectations expressed by ourselves and those around us are that we will succeed in the challenges that lie before us?  How is it that so many of us live our whole lives and never achieve our most sacred life goals?  How is it that so many of us live our daily lives, taking care of all the little things, while we live in silent despair that the very things that matter most in our lives are never achieved because we never seem to get around to them?  Are we really that busy? As outlined previously, it is easy to understand, and generally recognized that the lack of a sense of promise in oneself can lead to a sense of shame and subsequent failure in life.  How is it, then, that we may be inclined to not try at accomplishing the very life tasks and challenges we love when we ourselves, along with those around us, fully recognize our great potential to do so? 

Why we would rather feel guilt than shame 

            In order to understand how this can happen, it is important to first understand the dynamics of guilt in relation to shame.  In the everyday world, most of us use the terms “guilt” and “shame” interchangeably.  If not examined deeply enough, most of us would say they both feel the same. We would be hard pressed to differentiate one from the other, even though on some level we recognize that they are somehow different.  Yet, there are subtleties of meaning and feeling between the two terms which make them very different.  So how do we interpret the experience of guilt in relation to the experience of shame and why is it critical that we understand the difference between the two? 

            We feel guilt when we make a mistake.  We may also feel guilt when we believe we have made a mistake.  There is an element of control in the experience of guilt, because when we make mistakes, we often can make amends. Certainly, we can express our regrets, say we are sorry and convey a sense of contrition to the offended party.  In short, we experience the emotion of guilt because of something we do, not because of who we are. With guilt, we can have the power and control to change our behavior. 

            The experience of shame, however, is completely different because we lose all sense of the element of control with the experience of shame.  The subtlety in the differences between the two emotions is lethal.  While with guilt, we may experience that we have made a mistake, with the experience of shame, we believe that we are the mistake.  It is no longer a matter of our behavior, what we do, but it is now a matter of who we are.  We can change our behavior, but the sense of being able to change who we are can seem like an impossible task.  To the extent that we can define who we are by what we do, we have the power to escape shame.  We can change the doing. But when it comes down to our defining who we are by our existence, by our very sense of who we are in relation to the rest of the world, we become very vulnerable to the experience of shame. 

We feel guilt when we make a mistake; we feel shame when we feel we are the mistake. 

            Although we may not be aware of it at a conscious level, most of us would rather experience guilt than shame.  We can always do better than the last time.  If we do a wrong, we can always make it right.   

            This is never more apparent than in the behavior noted in teenagers that are described as being juvenile delinquents.  If we look behind their acting-out behavior, we often find teens who are feeling undervalued and worthless at their core.  Often as a result of a variety of influences, including parents and family background, school setting and the community, these kids have begun to feel like losers who have no promise in their future.  In terms of their existence – their “being,” they feel worthless. It's not just their anger that underlies their acting out.  Their experience has taught them that there are not enough good things they can do to make themselves worthwhile.   

            Their escape from shame then comes from doing wrong or “bad” things that allow them to experience their sense of self in the doing realm, rather than in the being realm where they are more vulnerable to shame.  As long as they are acting out and misbehaving, they get to feel guilt, not shame. The rejection they feel from others can come from what they do, allowing guilt – which is tolerable – rather than coming from the sense of what they are, bringing shame – which is intolerable. It is easier to live with the option of doing better, making changes, preventing and fixing things in order to "be" a good person.  To act on that option opens one up to the intolerability of shame, if nothing done turns out to be “good enough.” 

            What is the option?  If they do clean up their act as the saying goes, and they continue to experience rejection, abandonment and nonacceptance by their peers, society, and their families, they will experience that nothing they can do is good enough: that unworthiness lies at the core of their existence and therefore they experience shame.  This is rather like the bumper sticker I once saw on the back of a car: “I may be fat but you're ugly and I can lose weight.”  Again, the shame is experienced in the lack of control, where what we do becomes frozen to become who we are: I can lose weight, but I can't change ugly.  

            Once we grasp the concept behind these dynamics of what I call the dark side of shame, we can see this operating in many aspects of our lives and the lives of others.  It is the variety of shame most commonly recognized. The child may be raised in a family where no matter what he does, some aspect of his performance is simply not good enough.  Parents of such children who come to experience this dark side of shame, will ignore all the “A's” on a report card and make a big negative issue about the “C” the child received for his performance in his weakest area.  Another child, often the firstborn, will respond to her sense of abandonment within the dynamics of a dysfunctional family by attempting to compensate for the inadequacies of parental attention.   

            Such children, or teens, become “family heroes” or “caretakers” who put all of their energies and resources into performing in the most outstanding possible way.  By being the best that they can be in their chosen area, they are able to stay functioning within the doing the realm of existence, which gives them some sense of control.  Their hope is that their performance will eventually result in acceptance and recognition of their efforts – and if that does not come when expected, they can always improve or change their behavior the next time. However, if this never occurs – if  the parents are too distracted by their own dysfunction, such high performing persons eventually will come face to face with the threat of shame in their lives.  And they grow up with that threat. 

The feeling of not doing enough eventually becomes not being enough. 

            Again, beneath their conscious awareness, they face two options – one which is acceptable, the other untenable.  The acceptable one is an interpretation which allows them to experience guilt rather than shame.  If they are not accepted or recognized yet, it simply means that they have not done enough – yet.  They then feel the need to do more.  They need to give more, be there more for other people, sacrifice more, perform at a higher level, and do, do, do, whatever it takes in order to make their lives work and be worthy and acceptable to other people and the world around them.  Thus, they wind themselves up to keep going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny until, exhausted and worn down, they come face-to-face with the second option.   

            At some point, whether via overwhelm, catastrophe, or some subtle insight just below the awareness threshold, they come to the perception that they simply cannot do enough in order to “be enough” in the world.  They have run out of “doing” options.  The dust settles around them and there they are. The perception shifts from the doing to the one who is doing.   

            The illusion is: If we cannot “do” enough, then we cannot “be” enough, therefore we come to the experience of shame.   

            The idea of the possibility of discovering that at the core of our being we may be totally inadequate is so frightening for many of us that we are driven. We are driven until our exhaustion or some event in our lives forces us to stop and face the fact that this doing, doing, doing only creates the illusion of control.  The realization comes that we will never be able to "do" enough in order to "be" enough.  Why?  It is the nature of physical reality that no matter how much we do, there is always more to do.  Those who have yet to achieve this realization keep trying to experience their sense of worth in doing until they eventually come to experience an awesome sense of shame – often just beneath the surface of their everyday awareness.  Some persons in such circumstances vacillate between periods of paralyzing depression and bouts of manic, energetic doing that propel them across the surface of their deep depression like a non-swimmer in a ruptured kayak, frantically trying to reach shore before the boat sinks. 

Next: Part III – How Living On Promise Can Paralyze Our Lives 

Granville Angell   © 05/2007 

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC: local counselor and author of The God-Shaped Hole – A Story of Comfort for The Child in All of Us.  Read his prior articles at www.transitions-counseling.com; contact him at TRANSITIONS: angell@transitions-counseling.com, 704-276-1164.

To call TRANSITIONS/SoulMentors: (704) 276-1164

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