This evening around 5pm I had a conversation with my aunt and uncle about how things are going, and what needs to change. We all had some similar feelings, especially after the incident yesterday. We talked for the best part of two hours, although it actually went by quickly for me, and had a lot of great insights.
Most of it is too new for me to be able to write about. I haven’t had a chance to process it all yet. But there is once piece that I feel capable of writing about –
Over the past couple weeks, I have spent more and more time by myself, and I was sort of withdrawing into myself. My uncle likened it to a cocoon. I think that was a very accurate comparison. Because at first, the isolation and sameness of my routine was comforting, protective; it made me feel safe. But in the past couple of weeks, it started to feel confining and restrictive. In that semi-isolation, it became easier and easier for me to lose touch with reality. Now, I’m not saying I was losing my mind or anything. I’m just saying that my awareness level of my internal dialogue and its relevance to the world around me started to become less accurate.
The analogy I used in the conversation with Richard and Kate was that it was like I was a boat, coming into the harbor at night. I was used to being able to read my course by the lighted buoys. But after a while, with no contact with the outside world, the buoys all began to look alike, at it became harder and harder for me to see where I was going.
That detachment from the world around me made it easy for me to start feeling one of the most toxic of human emotions: shame. It started out as guilt, which has a purpose.
Guilt is the knowledge or awareness that something you have done is wrong. It might be something as little as forgetting to take out the trash. Or it might be something as big as cheating on your spouse. Either way, you have a nagging feeling that pushes you to make things right. Usually, once you do set things to right, the feeling of guilt goes away.
But sometimes, there is a problem. If that guilt persists long enough, it can turn into shame.
Now you might think guilt and shame are the same. And in fact, the difference between them is quite subtle. Here is the way I was taught to distinguish them by one of my counselors:
“Guilt tells you that something you have done is wrong.
Shame tells you that something about who you are is wrong.”
Guilt may not be a pleasant feeling, but it does have its place. It is a bit like pain in that way. Many of us probably wish that our bodies couldn’t feel pain. But we have learned by studying those with a condition called “CIPA” – Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis – who can’t feel pain at all, that pain is actually a good thing. Pain develops when an area of our body is injured or ill. It helps us diagnose the problem, helps us know how to care for our bodies. Just like guilt helps us know when there is a problem with something we have done (or left undone).
But pain, if left untreated for too long, or in certain circumstances, can become chronic. And when that happens, even though the injury or illness was treated long ago, the nerves in the body continue to send pain signals to the brain, for no reason at all except that that is what they have been doing for so long they don’t know anything else to do. That is what happens with guilt if it becomes a pattern. Eventually it is subverted and turns into shame. Then it no longer has a purpose. It makes you feel miserable, even if you no longer have anything to feel miserable about.
Shame is toxic. It can lead us down the road to despair. It sabotages every good feeling in our life. It makes us feel like our accomplishments are worthless, while our failures are monumental. Shame occupies the space inside us that ought to be reserved for love and compassion. When I was full of shame, it was impossible for me to accept the love of others. In fact, I couldn’t ever believe that anyone truly loved me. Because that toxic shame made it impossible for me to love myself. I had no compassion for me. I was constantly telling myself what a stupid, incompetent, loathsome person I was. And if anyone tried to contradict me, I just brushed it off, saying “they don’t really know how awful I am, so what they say doesn’t mean anything”.
Over the past couple of weeks, I think that I began to over-identify with my guilt to the point that it began to form a complex of shame. And that led directly to the incident yesterday, when I actually felt guilt for something I hadn’t done, and in fact, for something I had not even consciously thought of doing. Yes, as I acknowledged in yesterday’s post, I am unsure what my true, underlying intentions were when I picked up those keys. But I did not really have anything for which to feel guilty when my aunt walked into the room, and yet the guilty impulse was so great that I thrust the keys into my pocket and tried to pretend like it hadn’t happened. That action is the mark of someone who thinks they have something to hide. And yet, I had nothing to hide except for my own shame.
Over the past two weeks I had begun feeling dissatisfied with my routine. Dissatisfied how I was going about things. Most of all, I had become dissatisfied with myself. I began to feel guilty that I wasn’t as gung-ho as I had been two months ago. Then I started to feel like there was something wrong with me because it seemed like I was losing momentum. That gave me the impulse to want to hide, to isolate myself even more. When you have shame inside of you, sharing yourself with other people seems completely impossible. You think, “how can I share myself with anyone, they would just see how awful I am and then they would not want to be around me”. And of course, that is a self-perpetuating cycle, because the more you stay away from others, the more your shame can grow. Shame cannot live in the light. It is a secret, and if it stays in the darkness it becomes a monster that can devour your very soul.
But when you shed the light of truth on shame it withers and dies. Perhaps not all at once, especially if it is rooted deep. But over time, when exposed, shame will diminish until it finally is gone for good. That, is how you truly kill shame.
I am so grateful for what happened yesterday. It helped us to have the conversation that I needed to have, to draw out what was happening, and to help us figure out how to move forward. We decided to make a few adjustments to help me combat those feelings of guilt, shame, and isolation. I decided that putting more focus on my self-awareness will benefit me greatly. But the most important thing of all will be starting to share myself again. To open myself back up to my family, my friends, and to all of you.
That isn’t to say I haven’t been honest with you on my blog. I have. But over the past couple weeks I have not been using my awareness to its full potential, and therefore I have often just written about what happened to be on my mind at the time rather than thinking through what I really needed to write about.
Thank you all for bearing with me.
I look forward to really opening up more in the days ahead. I’ll warn you, the things that go on beneath the surface inside my mind are not always pleasant. But hopefully we can all learn things from these experiences I am having as I try to sustain these positive changes I am making, and as I progress ever further toward my goal of optimum wellness.
Goodnight, and peace to you,
- Guilt Gets You Nowhere (sharpenher.wordpress.com)
- On Shame and Guilt (perspectiveandwords.wordpress.com)
- Blame, Shame and Guilt…a Big Fat Waste of Time and Energy (karentarnopolschultz.wordpress.com)
- On Guilt and Shame (jadescastle.wordpress.com)
- Words: What drives you? Guilt, Fear & Shame (ryanadnin.wordpress.com)