Mental Health With Maddie: Shame, Guilt And What To Do With it All
White lies, as this month’s contributors have shared with us, are good, bad, ugly, hilarious, nefarious or some combination of adjectives. We tell lies for a variety of reasons. Sometimes to get out of something we never wanted to do, sometimes to protect relationships. Sometimes the lies are the smallest and whitest of lies, and sometimes they are big, dark and painful. Sometimes lies are things we tell others, we tell ourselves, we are told by others or we are told by our culture.
I’m not here to tell you if lying is right or wrong. I believe an amount of moral relativism applies here; without knowing the true context of any situation, we can’t really deem its rightness or wrongness. However, we do know what society at large says about lying: lying is bad and you should not do it. So, inevitably, when we all (yes all) do it, that social construct comes down on us emotionally: Lying hurts.
Emotional Fallout: Guilt and Shame
Guilt is the feeling of responsibility and remorse for an action or offense. Example: I often feel guilty for not going to the gym and staying home and drinking a good Chardonnay instead. (Actually I might not actually feel guilty for that, but you get the idea.) We feel guilty when we watch that ASPCA commercial (or immediately change the channel), we feel guilty when we make plans with our friends and text an hour before, saying, “Sorry I can’t go, I have a work thing” (or maybe that’s just me).
I believe and wager that guilt is a normal and healthy feeling to experience. Feelings of guilt reflect our moral and social compass. We know we shouldn’t do the dip on our friends, but sometimes we just have to. Guilt reminds us of our true values, and that we should work to put ourselves — through self-care, compassion and healthy boundaries — in positions where we can be our best and most authentic selves.
Sometimes guilt can evolve — when we start to internalize guilt, it can become shame. Shame is insidious. Shame is internalization of responsibility and fault. Shame is the conscious feeling of discomfort that emerges from feeling that one’s actions were dishonorable or improper. Shame is hurtful.
I know women who are ashamed of being poor, ashamed of their bodies, ashamed of being sexually assaulted, ashamed of being abused. Often, shame arises from situations we really didn’t have control over, dishonorable actions done to us by another. Sometimes, we are ashamed of ourselves. For our darkest lies or for what we believe are our greatest flaws.
When working with shame, we have to be understanding of our personal, cultural and environmental contexts. Sometimes we learn shame. Women who don’t like their bodies might be struggling with unrealistic Western cis-hetero patriarchal beauty standards. Women struggling with traumas may feel responsible because of the cultural narrative surrounding sexual purity and gender ideals. Whatever our shame is, we can explore it and re-author it. Consider the questions below:
- Think about what personal values have led you to feel ashamed. Who taught you these values? Your family? Your culture? The media?
- Do these learned values truly reflect you? Or do they reflect cultural messages at large?
- How can you learn to re-author your own story to reflect your values? Does this re-authoring change how you view yourself and your shameful event?
Sometimes re-authoring can change our perspective, but it might not take away feelings of shame. At these times it is important we are the most gentle and kind to ourselves. As we work through our shame, our stories and our truths, we drag ourselves through an emotional swamp.
Self-Care and Compassion
Be kind to yourself. Watch your favorite movies, hug a dog or cat, tell your partner you need a little extra TLC. Take a day off from work, if you can. Wrap yourself in your favorite blanket or go to the gym. Drink tea, ride your bike, bask in the sunshine. Take five minutes to walk outside your workplace and take some deep breaths. Find whatever it is that recharges you and do that. And then do it again. And again. Self-care is preventative medicine. Take care of yourself and set yourself up for productivity, authenticity and success.
A component of self-care is self-compassion. We often are much kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Monitor your self-talk. Would you say what you are saying to yourself to a friend or partner? When you make mistakes, forgive yourself. Remind yourself you are a growing and changing person who is learning as they go. This is a hard task, but being kind to yourself is a great way to manage negative emotions, especially as they relate to guilt, self-esteem and self-worth. The only person who is giving you feedback all the time is you. Make sure that feedback is constructive and comes from a place of love.
Remember feeling guilty about standing up a friend at the last minute? Feeling ashamed because you couldn’t get a big work project done on time? It feels gross. Think about ways you could mitigate getting into those situations. One could be self-care, and feeling refreshed and ready. Another way can be setting healthy boundaries.
Boundaries are important, we have to allow ourselves to consent to things. We often feel pressure and that our consent to engage in whatever (work, play, etc.) is secondary to the needs of others. I’m not saying you should go wild and quit working because it sucks (I’m imagining “Office Space” right now), but I am saying you should ask for extensions on projects if you need them. Decline extra tasks if you just cannot handle them right now (and be honest with yourself, we aren’t superheroes!). Instead of going out with friends tell them you need a night in and they are welcome to bring the wine since you’re ordering the pizza. (Yes, pizza and wine are a good pairing.) Don’t go on a date with someone you don’t like because you feel pressure to date or be married or be any kind of thing other than what is truly uniquely authentically you in that moment.
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