Complaints about feelings of guilt or shame have plagued people ever since Eve persuaded Adam to take a bite of the apple. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have received long lists of qualities and behaviors for which we have felt obliged to feel both guilty and ashamed. Some, we manage to secret away in an invisible bag we drag behind us. Others are with us every day, a source of confusion and discomfort, making us vulnerable not only to the indictments of others but, more importantly, to our own self-recrimination. The key to understanding why these feelings have such a powerful impact on us is this: Guilt and shame place us in opposition to ourselves!
No wonder we have trouble in our day-to-day functioning at times. While we discover clever ways of dodging criticism and complaints from others, we have much less success evading our own inner critic. Unless quirky elements in our neurological functioning have made us sociopaths, most of us have a difficult time getting around nagging thoughts that condemn our own behavior.
Blaming our past for this painful vulnerability, cursing all those people who discovered in us a broad landscape of human behavior to denounce has little effect. It doesn’t make these thoughts go away. It is we, not they, who now stand in opposition to ourselves.
All the squirming we do to try to rationalize our own behavior, all the excuses, the blaming of others and so on, reveals a pattern of defensive behavior that has little effect. It simply doesn’t work because there is really no one to persuade, including us. We know the Critic doesn’t go away.
You may be surprised to learn that despite its remarkable persistence there is something we can do about this problem. You may be doubtful about its effectiveness at first because it may seem ridiculously simple, too flimsy to take on a problem that has resisted all of your previous attempts to deal with it.
Oddly enough, the antidote to guilt and shame is an exercise that draws on the power of resentment. Anyone who can genuinely make the statement, “I feel guilty about _____.” Or can truly say, “I feel ashamed about _____.” Can also say with complete authenticity “I resent having to feel guilty,” or “I resent having to feel ashamed.”
When individuals who are guilt- or shame-driven allow themselves to experiment with this exercise, making a guilt or shame statement followed immediately by a resentment statement, they notice an undeniable feeling of resentment, an aggrieved and angry repudiation against an obligation to feel guilty or ashamed. Spontaneous declarations often follow revealing how strongly an individual feels about it. “Yes, I do resent it. It isn’t fair and it isn’t true!”
This simple experiment surprises people. It suddenly makes connections long forgotten, unmasking the hidden originators who first suggested we should feel guilty or ashamed. The feeling of resentment isn’t toward ourselves, it is toward those who insisted we feel guilty or ashamed. Having expressed our resentment we feel relief. We hear the validity of our own resentment. We do resent having to feel guilty or ashamed. “I do resent it! I shouldn’t have to feel guilty about being aggressive.” Or, “Yes, it isn’t right to be ashamed of my sexuality.”
The relief is obvious as we shift from being against ourselves to being on our own side! We are emancipated, free of an encumbering and unnecessary antagonism toward our own behavior.
At this point you may say, “Wait a minute! How can you stop feeling guilty or ashamed about something by simply saying you resent it?” Quite right. You can’t. Not by simply saying you resent it. When you actually feel the resentment, however, when you find yourself resisting the idea of being guilty or shameful, and you realize that you are actually angry about it, everything changes. You stop feeling guilty or ashamed and you start to feel good about yourself. You like being on your own side!
“Okay,” you may say, “but you can’t go around feeling resentful all the time.”
You don’t need to do that. Guilt and shame are like a dead battery. These feelings immobilize us. Resentment works like jumper cables; they restart your “engine.” Once you get it started you simply put your jumper cables away. You don’t have to feel resentful anymore because now you’re feeling good.
“But, aren’t there times when we should feel guilty? Or ashamed of what we do?”
Absolutely. We still do things that are wrong, and we do well to feel guilty about them. We may even feel ashamed once in a while too. Nobody is perfect. As long as these feelings are valid and up to date they can be useful guides, protecting us in this complicated world. Openly admitting to a feeling of shame for behavior we genuinely regret is an act of humility that serves us and society well. Similarly, owning up to guilt when we screw up is a mark of maturity. These things make us trustworthy. When we admit our foibles we can be forgiven, and importantly, we can forgive ourselves.
To a great extent, however, much of the guilt and shame that plagues us are residuals of early attempts to civilize children. Like training wheels used when first learning to ride a bike, these guides for our behavior are no longer needed. Mature judgment and compassion are better guides.
Photo credit: Getty Images