You’ve done something wrong. You’ve not been as good as you could be. You hurt someone you love, someone who deserves better from you. This person might be a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend, a partner, or a spouse. Whoever it is; where you were once trustworthy, you’re now unreliable. You were close, but now you’re distant. You were loved, but now there’s disgust. You want to do better, but you don’t know how. You’ve apologized, maybe a hundred times, but you can’t get past it. You know that your action, even though it was wrong, was not the whole story. There were precipitating factors. It’s complicated, you’d like to explain, but you can’t talk about it without sounding like you’re making excuses. You wish there were another way between groveling and pride. You’d like to learn from your mistakes without losing your dignity and voice.
There’s a way to repair what was damaged.
What you’ve got to do is ditch shame.
I know, you’re afraid that if you don’t feel ashamed you’ll go back to doing whatever you did.
It’s not shame you need. You need guilt. Guilt addresses what you’ve done. Shame indicts who you are. Guilt makes you seek repair and pursue change. Shame makes you want to hide.
Shame says you’re a hopeless loser, a chronic relapser, a dog who’ll turn back and eat his own vomit. Shame says you’ll never stop doing what you’re doing. Shame says there’s no way out; guilt shows you the way. Guilt makes you think of the people you victimized; shame makes you think of yourself. Shame keeps you from trying, guilt urges you to admit your mistakes and make restitution.
Shame says you’ve always been like this, you’ll never change. You’ve done the things you’ve done because that’s the way you are. Guilt says you’re better than that, you can do things differently; the way you’ve always been is not the same as the way you’ll be. Guilt points to the future; shame keeps you stuck in the past.
Shame says you don’t deserve forgiveness. Sure, if you fail to follow guilt and listen to shame, then you won’t admit your wrongs, make repair, and change. If all you do is blame others, wait for others, feel sorry, or even, occasionally say you’re sorry without changing anything; that wouldn’t be deserving of forgiveness. On the other hand, if you accept responsibility, acknowledge the harm, make amends, and come out of it a different person, then that is deserving of forgiveness.
You may say you’ll never be forgiven. The person you harmed will never let go of the harm you caused. They will hold it against you forever. If you’re thinking that, those thoughts do not come from shame or guilt, they are just thoughts. They may be true. Past a certain point, forgiveness is out of your control. If you have done everything deserving of forgiveness and the person you harmed does not forgive you, then that’s on them. Maybe they just aren’t there yet. Maybe they’ll never be. We don’t know. We’ll never know if you don’t put yourself in the position to make it happen.
So, if shame makes you want to hide, blame others, or castigate yourself, what does guilt want you to do?
Guilt has a program designed to help you address the thing you did wrong.
- Admit the exact nature of the wrong.
- Acknowledge the effects that sprang from your wrong.
- Be willing to make appropriate amends.
- Follow through with making amends.
- Permit the change that results in taking these steps to settle in and become part of you.
So, how do you ditch shame? What makes shame go away?
You think shame will stick around while you do all that? If you listen to guilt, you won’t have to ditch shame; shame will ditch you.