We can all relate to the metaphor of people being like icebergs – outsiders see about ten percent of who we are – and ninety percent remains hidden. What’s in the ninety percent? Fears, secrets, vulnerability, insecurities and, significantly, guilt and shame.
Guilt is the feeling of regret, discomfort or embarrassment that emerges when we have done something wrong, made a mistake or believe our actions were not good/honest/authentic. Shame – a much deeper emotion is found within our personal identity: “I am wrong”, “I am a mistake”, “I am bad”.
Guilt can mobilise us toward doing better, making amends, trying harder, and correction. Shame is often debilitating, immobilising and disempowering. Feeling guilty about not sending a friend a birthday greeting can motivate us to ring and apologise and invite the friend out for a make-up dinner.
Feeling shame about gambling the rent money, or having an extra-marital affair compels us to try and lie about our behaviour and either secretly try and fix it or minimise the unacceptable nature of the behaviour and continue doing it. Shame can also arise from the morally unacceptable behaviour of others, such as when abuse or domestic violence is present.
Shame can be so immobilising it stops us from seeking help to address the origin of the feeling. Embarrassment and humiliation are close relatives of shame. A certain behaviour or event evokes some kind of thought associated with a negative view of self (“I’m damaged”, “I’m disgusting”) and this leads to the feeling of shame.
What's the link between the two?
The link between behaviour or events, thoughts and feelings gives us a critical clue to the way in which we can shed feelings of guilt and shame. Broadly speaking, behaviour/events can be classified into four categories:
1.) Important and controllable (eg, who we marry, the career we choose, what we say)
2.) Unimportant and controllable (eg, the colour socks we wear, what we watch on TV)
3.) Unimportant and uncontrollable (eg, whether your neighbour’s cousin is vegetarian)
4.) Important and uncontrollable (eg, violence against you, pandemics, other’s opinions)
Obviously, the most difficult for us to emotionally manage are the events in category four. It is vital that we recognise that if we cannot control an event or behaviour then expending emotional or physical energy on it is unhelpful at least and detrimental at worse.
The importance of acceptance
So, if we feel guilt or shame as a result of an event or action that falls into category four, then reminding ourselves of the futility of the feelings and working on acceptance of our inability to change the situation is the best way to shed the feelings.
Acceptance might “simply” involve saying to yourself (over and over) something like: “I accept that *** happened and that I am powerless to change it now. I choose to nurture and focus on feelings of peace and resolution”.
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