Lifting the Burden of Shame and Guilt
Looking back at the tapestry of your experiences, do you see an abundance of snags and mistakes? Are there times when you’ve let yourself or others down? Have you ever told a harmful lie, or engaged in potentially damaging activities behind another’s back? Have you ever ruined a situation so thoroughly, you thought there was no bouncing back from it?
If so, you’re not alone.
We’ve all done things we regret. That’s part of the sometimes-magnificent, sometimes-terrifying experience of being human. Just acknowledging that you aren’t perfect is helpful, but it doesn’t necessarily alleviate the guilt or shame that stem from faulty decision-making or misdeeds. These are heavy feelings, and many of us carry them on our shoulders, day-in, day-out.
How, then, can we free ourselves from the burden of guilt and shame? As I’ve discovered from personal experience, it takes time and intentional action, but it is possible to release yourself from the constant self-loathing and belittling that tends to accompany shame.
Start by recognizing the usefulness of shame and guilt.
Though it may sound odd, feelings of guilt/shame have their place. Author, researcher, and empath, Karla McLaren, calls all emotions “specific and brilliant messengers,” and maintains that each one (even feelings of anger or sadness) have a purpose. Emotions help us put up healthy barriers or acknowledge when something is wrong.
In the case of guilt and shame, these emotions help us learn to not repeat our mistakes. We don’t like feeling guilty; therefore, we are not keen on repeating the actions that make us feel this way. As McLaren puts it, feeling guilt/shame, help us to build “a compassionate sense of ethics.”
Once you’ve acknowledged the purpose of your guilt and shame, it’s time to thank it for its service, and send it on its way. Start with your self-talk.
Do you tell yourself that your past actions or thoughts make you “no good” or “worthless?” Do you pin harmful labels on yourself like liar, cheat, or lazy? If so, it’s time to halt the harmful voices in your head and replace them with positive messages. When you begin dragging yourself down with insults, STOP. Refute the message and replace it with a better one.
Start thinking about yourself as someone who is empowered—someone who can choose their own narrative (see my post on Challenging Your Inner Critic).
If you’re plagued by chronic guilt, another way to face it head-on is to think about it as something separate from yourself. You are not your guilt, and your guilt is not you. It is something you experience, but it doesn’t need to dwell within you forever.
In meditative practices, we are guided to let our thoughts pass through like clouds. In the same way, you can acknowledge your guilt and give it permission to keep moving (or, if it’s being particularly difficult, you could pantomime pushing it away from your body). Once you’ve asked it to leave, be sure to replace your guilt-ridden feelings with self-love or joy, otherwise the guilt will come rushing back.
Through small, intentional steps, you can chip away the burden of guilt and shame. Start thinking about these emotions as useful, guiding tools (tools that help you amend future behavior). However, once their usefulness has dried up, it’s time to send them on their way. Use positive self-talk, meditative techniques, or (and there is no shame in this!) talk to a professional counselor if the feelings are too much to alleviate on your own. I am also available to help you strengthen the relationship with yourself.
Remember, even though you may be haunted by regret, you have the opportunity to wake up tomorrow, step forward, and do better.