There’s been a lot of discussion in the news related to shame and you would have to be living under a rock to miss it. A recent experience at a grocery store inspired the topic for this blog because shame is something we all experience. No exceptions. So let’s talk about it, shall we? It goes without saying that we are going into some deep waters here and I anticipate easily spending a few more blogs on this issue. I asked Lela on our way out the door one morning how she would define “shame” and her off-the-cuff definition was “disgrace, guilt, or embarrassment.” Not a bad place to start since all of these feelings have the root of underlying shame. According to Dictionary.com, The Hall of Shame is “a mythical place where utter failures or disgraced entities are recognized.” Ouch! I believe shame is closely related to embarrassment, guilt, and disgrace as Lela indicated in her definition but I believe “disgrace” comes the closest to describing what shame is really all about. Let me explain.
We can more easily shake feelings of intermittent guilt or embarrassment because they are relatively short-lived. You bump into someone by accident or you call a coworker by the wrong name for the fifth time. That’s embarrassing but you apologize and you move on. Guilt is something we feel when we do something that is morally wrong or something we perceive is beneath our dignity. One of the problems with unresolved guilt is that we internalize it, which can lead to shame or the perpetual feeling that one is disgraceful. Here are some examples. Susan is frequently late to work or other appointments. Guilt says, “Wow Susan, that’s pretty bad. You really need to be on time because that’s not becoming of you.” Shame and Disgrace says, “Susan, you are a horrible person/employee and that’s why you are always late. Shame on you.” Have you ever forgotten an important day such as an anniversary or birthday? Valentine’s Day? A job interview? Put another way, guilt says “I did something bad” but shame says “I am a bad person, spouse, or child, and that’s why I keep doing bad things.”
Shame leads to a perpetual cycle. For example, a person who overeats begins to see himself as a glutton…and the feeling of being a glutton leads to despair and more overeating. So what are some keys? First of all, we have to separate deeds or behavior from identity. I am not a bad person (as shame would have me to believe) even though I have done and (occasionally continue do) some bad things. The fact that I feel guilt or remorse is a good sign in that I recognize I did something beneath my dignity and I can correct it by making different choices that are consistent with my values or morals. One of the things we can do to resolve guilt is to acknowledge it for what it is. Give yourself room to be human and to admit when you have messed up. Secondly, go back and make amends whenever possible if your mistake involved hurting someone else. Thirdly, move on. Don’t wallow in self-pity or guilt about how or why you managed to do such a thing. There’s absolutely nothing to be gained from beating yourself up over the offense. We will pick up this topic in part 2.