There are many misconceptions about guilt and shame. Many are them are perpetuated by those who try to use these feelings to keep us down and hold us back. I will not name who does this to us but if you examine your life it will become very obvious. In fact, under this post I would love to hear from you about the creative ways these feelings have been used against you.
Guilt and shame are tricky feelings that cause so much unnecessary suffering. Nearly identical in the way they work within us, guilt and shame generally form a single complex. But while it is possible to feel guilt without shame, we cannot feel shame without guilt. The way to distinguish them is this: Guilt is the feeling that follows a perceived wrongdoing. "I did wrong." Shame is the feeling that we, ourselves, are made "wrong" or "bad" for what we perceive we did. It relates to the energy of every emotion from apathy through pride. Shame, on the other hand, is a grief related feeling.
In this post I will first explore and debunk the common misunderstandings about guilt and shame, the insidious robbers of our happiness, freedom and peace of mind. It will also provide simple strategies for releasing these self-sabotaging feelings. Since for most purposes they are interchangeable, throughout the remainder of this post I'll refer to guilt and shame collectively, either as "guilt" or "guilt/shame."
Lies Perpetuated in the Name of Guilt and Shame
There are three major myths about guilt/shame that often severely limit our lives and make us miserable. The first and biggest lie is that guilt can protect us from being punished. In fact, guilt is an unconscious "I owe you" for punishment. That's right. When we feel guilty, we attract punishment from the world and we also create it for ourselves. And here is the kicker: We never feel as though we've been sufficiently punished.
Lie No. 1: Guilt Protects Us From Punishment
How does self-punishment arise? First we do something, or think of doing something that we believe we shouldn't do or that is wrong to do. Interestingly, we often feel guilty even when we haven't followed through with an external action. Then, whether or not we'll "get away with it" in the eyes of the world, we remain aware of what we did or thought, and won't easily let ourselves off the hook. Because we believe that punishment from the outside is inevitable, we punish ourselves in order to prevent receiving it. But since we have no idea of what others, or even our own sense of inner governance will determine is an appropriate degree of punishment, we usually overdo it.
The first time I remember inflicting guilt-motivated punishment of this kind on myself was in preschool after I got angry with a fellow student and pushed him so hard that he slipped and fell, breaking a glass. I felt so bad about having hurt him, and so afraid of what my teacher and parents might do to punish me, that I picked up a piece of the glass and cut myself, inwardly hoping that the action would protect me from any impending repercussions. Of course it didn't work. I still got reprimanded and received a punishment. It was so insignificant, however, that I can't even recall what happened, except that I did get punished and also had a cut on my hand for good measure.
Pause for a moment to consider anything you feel guilty about doing or not doing, saying or not saying, or even thinking or feeling. Make a point of noticing whether you have been punishing yourself and living in fear of an impending external punishment.
When you think about the things that you've been feeling guilty about, also check to see if your guilt has actually protected you from being punished, as the feeling "promised" you it would. Like the lies that most feelings tell us, you'll usually find that your guilt produced the opposite effect. It caused you to punish yourself. And, if your actions involved others, most likely it didn't prevent you from receiving their punishment. After all, if feeling guilty truly prevented external punishment, wouldn't our prisons be a lot emptier?
Tip: A simple way to break this cycle is to either decide you have been punished enough or simply let go of wanting to punish yourself for this thought or deed.
Lie No. 2: Guilt Keeps Us In Control
A second lie perpetuated in the name of guilt is that the feeling somehow prevents us from repeating our "wrong" actions. But haven't you -- or someone you've known -- ever done, said, or thought anything that you felt guilty about more than once? Of course you have. We all have. Guilt frequently triggers us to do, or to continue doing the exact same things that we believe we've already done wrong -- again as self-inflicted punishment. Guilt is one of the main causes of actions that we later regret.
Consider the following example. Imagine that you're on diet to lose weight. Then you slip and have a cookie or a dish of ice cream and you feel guilty about it. So what do you do? That's right. You punish yourself by having another cookie or another scoop of ice cream. Now you feel even guiltier. Pretty soon, as an escalating punishment for your indiscretion, you finish the entire bag of cookies or pint of ice cream. And you probably don't allow yourself to enjoy even one bite. Sound familiar? You bet. The diet industry thrives on this little understood phenomenon that causes most dieters to fail.
It is also why the world is full of people atoning in various ways for sins that they have every intention -- at least subconsciously, if not overtly -- of doing again.
Tip: If you find yourself in this guilt loop let go of wanting to do it again or simply notice what is happening and welcome the feelings that are motivating the behavior this will start breaking the pattern.
Now, I am not going to suggest that we all begin doing anything we want to do with reckless abandon, ignoring the guidelines of moral or disciplined behavior. However, since our guilt feelings don't stop most of us from doing things we later regret, when we willingly release our guilt/shame the benefits are usually profound. Freedom from guilt/shame means we are free to make better, healthier, more supportive choices.
Lie No. 3: It's Our Fault
Another area in which guilt plays a significant role is being unable to move beyond early abuse. When our parents, guardians, teachers, or spiritual leaders abuse us when we are young, it is difficult for us to accept that these people could do something so wrong. When we are young, adults -- especially influential ones like our parents -- have a tremendous amount of power in the world compared to our own. After all, they provide our food and shelter and are supposed to protect us from the outside world. Since we cannot yet survive on our own, discovering their fallibility directly threatens our survival. We may elevate the adults in our lives to the status of gods, or at least representatives of God. Therefore, when abuse occurs, we seek to pin blame on the only other participant that we can find: ourselves. We do this as a distorted, imaginary form of self-protection.
In Sedona Method courses, I've often worked with survivors of childhood abuse. Because survivors often blame themselves for what has happened, many have been feeling guilty and punishing themselves their whole lives for the mistakes of the adults that they trusted. Once they release their guilt feelings, and stop blaming and punishing themselves for their abusers' mistakes, they are able to free themselves of the emotional, mental, and visceral patterns of trauma and shame in which they've been locked.
Tip: If you are blaming yourself for someone else's transgressions remember it is not your fault even though it feels that way. Also, let go of wanting to blame yourself for the other persons mistakes.
I highly encourage you to explore this perspective and this process in your own life to liberate yourself from guilt and shame and to have a happier, anxiety and stress free life. You can also join our ReleasingFest this September for some great free support in applying this in your life.
Please comment below to let me know how you are applying this in your life and what insights you have received from reading this post.
This post is based on the principles explored in his book The Sedona Method; Your Key to Lasting Happiness, Success and Emotional Wellbeing. It is based on over three decades of experience with a simple, powerful, elegant and easy-to-learn technique that shows you how to tap your natural ability to let go instantaneously of any uncomfortable or unwanted feeling, thought or belief. For more information, visit www.Sedona.com.
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