19 August, 2009

What Do Guilt and Shame Achieve?

At one time or another, we’ve all had to deal with feelings of guilt over something that we said, did, or maybe just felt. We’ve possibly even added a good-sized, self-serving of shame to our guilty feelings for our transgression(s).

If you think back to the last time that you felt guilty about something, you would probably agree with me that your feelings of guilt and shame ran so deep that you didn’t want to confess to anyone what you had done. You couldn’t imagine that anyone would understand and you lived in the fear of being judged by others. We are quick to judge ourselves and we live in fear of being judged by others.

Guilt and shame make up the hat tree upon which we hang our righteousness. I believe that we partly make ourselves feel guilty and shameful in order to prove that we are righteous. If we weren’t righteous, we reason, we wouldn’t feel any guilt or shame for wrong-doing. By feeling guilty, we prove to ourselves, and sometimes, we believe, to others, that we are good and righteous people. We feel bad when we should and that’s how we’re supposed to be.

In our humanity, we are predisposed to making ourselves feel good or feel bad. We constantly sit in judgment mode – even of ourselves. But, the first thing that we need to recognize about guilt and shame is that they are not what make us holy. Our goodness is evidenced by having a voice of conscience. And it is our conscience that is our voice of reason; letting us know when we have done something wrong. Guilt and shame are what we apply in our humanity, based upon the voice of our conscience. However, neither of these feelings are the voice of conscience. They are both just side-effects that we apply because we think (as good people) we ought to.

But look at the difference between your conscience and guilt and shame. Your voice of conscience lets you know when you’ve done something that you should not have done; something that would cause hurt or suffering to yourself or another. Guilt and shame serve only to condemn you into hiding your actions, or thoughts, from others. Your conscience moves you to seek forgiveness from another while guilt and shame cause you to want to hide your actions. Your conscience seeks to move you to a higher plane of being while guilt and shame seek only to lower your morale into the lowest of places.

Guilt and shame are both self-absorbed, self-obsessed ways of thinking. If you feel guilty about something, you tend to punish, rather than forgive, yourself because you believe that you deserve it. Living in guilt provides no platform for you to be in a powerful position to drive your life forward. In fact, guilt and shame are killers of potential, killers of possibility, and killers of power. They provide no avenue for change; no jumping off point. They only allow for one to be stuck in his or her low feelings of self-esteem. Another difference is that guilt and shame always serve to separate you from others and from God while the voice of your conscience seeks always to draw you closer to others.

A person with whom I sought counsel years ago, told me that “people love to talk about what brings other people shame.” What a golden bit of wisdom that was for me. It brought light to a lot of places in my life where I had been hiding who I was from the people whom I loved and with whom I co-existed. I realized for the first time in my life that when I no longer lived in shame, and was open about my life with others, the conversations and whispering that had previously gone on behind my back all of a sudden stopped. My life was no longer fodder about which others cared to gossip.

The next time you want to feel guilty or ashamed, I hope that you will remember this blog. Refer to it as often as necessary to realize that guilt and shame are self-absorbed ways of being. No good thing comes from either of these feelings. Yet we choose them because we believe that we should, or because we believe we should be punished. If your conscience convicts you about something, seek forgiveness and make the necessary change. But, whatever you do, do not allow yourself to get into condemnation. That’s just a last-ditch effort at proving your righteousness to yourself.

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