Shame, Guilt, and Other Demons
by David A. Yeats LCSW
True self care requires we consider the three Core Notions of valuing ourselves positively, focusing on positive possibilities, and listening to our inner wisdom. If we are able to consistently approach life with these notions in mind, we will be taking care of ourselves, and largely, regardless of what goes on in the world we are living in, we will be able to maintain a general sense of well being.
So what gets in the way?
Typically, the messages we have learned when we are young, reinforced by feedback we receive as we are growing and learning, shape our sense of self and our sense of worthiness, and point the way toward how we are expected to live our lives.
For most of us, training in the ways of our culture is accomplished through encouragement of certain behaviors and discouragement of others. When we are young, others’ ideas of who we are and who we are to become—others’ visions of us and about us—become, eventually, the selves we believe we are.
In a very literal way, who we are is authored by our parents, family, friends, environment, and our culture. It is like we are plopped into a role in a certain play with a set of instructions for how we are to play the part.
This is not to say that these “authors” have something bad in mind for us: that is not usually true at all. Most are good-willed, and their intentions are to arm us to deal with what the world they have lived in requires. All of the rules that exist in our world have been written because their authors thought they would result in a better world. We all require some structure (which rules provide) to make sense of our lives.
And we are kept in check by the drone of repeated messages (the rules of our culture) that we hear over and over, daily, from others, and then learn to repeat to ourselves. We learn to play a tape with that set of instructions about our part in the play. But unfortunately, often these repeated messages come in the form of some unpleasant feeling inside of us: feeling a lack of safety, of shame, guilt, fear, self doubt, inferiority, confusion, and isolation.
It is not a bad thing that as a culture and society we have agreed on scripts and on rules. But it is not a good thing when the ways we are motivated to follow those scripts and rules makes us feel bad about ourselves. We can be motivated in two ways: we can be encouraged and supported (or motivated by positive experiences), or we can be coerced by fear (or motivated by negative experiences).
It is when we are motivated by fear that we are not able to truly care for ourselves. When we cannot value ourselves positively, or focus on positive possibilities, or listen within, it is because we are afraid. And fear motivates. Lack of safety, a sense that we are shameful, acting out of guilt and doubt, feeling alone—each of these are fear motivations, and each of us have experienced being motivated in this way a lot or a little, in our lives.
If I act out of guilt, for example, I pay no attention to my intuitive wisdom. It is more important to fend off the fear. If I don’t care take or rescue others, I may fear I’ll be rejected or criticized, so I care take someone else and ignore myself. If I don’t work long and hard, I’ll disappoint my husband or wife or parents, and I will feel guilty for being selfish, so I ignore myself and what I may need and defer to others’ needs. We are trained in guilt in thousands of ways.
And every time we act out of guilt, we create self doubt, and we create self distain. Every time we act out of guilt, we betray ourselves and our possibility for well being. If guilt is our motive for action, we betray our inner wisdom, and we act as if we are not capable of wisely assessing a balance between what is good for others and good for ourselves. And every time we act out of guilt, we give others control over us.
As worthy and intact and loveable beings—which we are, whether we know it or feel it or not—we will never act with guilt as the motivator. If I ever feel an urge to act out of guilt, I won’t do it. I will find another reason to do or not do something, one that makes sense to who I know myself to be, not the self I may have been told I am.
Some, fearfully, challenge this idea. If we don’t act out of guilt (or shame or fear or doubt), we will act selfishly, hedonistically, they say. We will think only of what works for us and ignore our fellow humans. And this can be true for those of us at early stages of development (either chronologically or psychologically). But for most humans, acting from our inner wisdom, because it is wisdom, we will think of self, yes, and will think of what serves others as well. Choices made out of confidence, inner clarity, and factoring in one’s self are choices that almost always result in more positive outcomes over time for both self and others. Choices made out of fear, shame, guilt, doubt, etc. result in outcomes that disempower us and generate more fear, more doubt, and far less well being going forward.
This has a lot to do with the inner tapes that we play. Imagine you walk around all the time with ear buds playing dirges, or playing a soundtrack from a horror film. It’s what you hear all the time. What is more likely to be generated inside you? Peace, ease, reflection, creativity, possibility, joy, positive energy? Or fear, anticipation, anger, anxiety, startling, dis-ease, doubt, lack of safety, negative energy? Of course it’s the same with music tapes as it is with the tapes we have been trained to recite in our heads. If they consist of fearful, anxious, or doubting energy, that’s what we will feel in our daily lives. We can change those tapes, and we need to for well being and self care. Look at previous posts on self care (especially “Specific Self Care Strategies”) for ideas about new scripts.
As we have said in these posts, positive self talk, that is, reminding ourselves regularly that we are good, intact, worthy, and loveable, and overriding any tape that says anything otherwise, (in other words, writing a new positive script to play in our ear buds), opens a whole new view to the world. We can begin to see positive possibilities, and we can begin to sense the good that exists in the world, despite the negative things that seem to be there.
This positive sense of self and positive possibility is the same thing as what John Bowlby is referring to when he speaks of a ”secure attachment” bond between parent and infant. And it is the same as the “basic trust” that A.H. Almaas writes about in Facets of Unity. (See Attachment Posts). Securely attached folks feel safe in the world, feel loved, and feel worthy. Those folks who experience (or learn to create) secure attachment are the ones Almaas describes as developing
“an implicit orientation toward all circumstances that allows you to relax, and to be with them. You feel in your bones that you are, and will be, ok, even if the events of the moment are disappointing and painful, or even completely disastrous. Consequently, you live your life in such a way that you naturally jump into the abyss without even conceptualizing that you will be ok, because you have an implicit sense that the universe will take care of you.”
That is creative possibility! That is positive possibility! It results when we get it that treating and talking to ourselves with dignity, respect, and an unconditional acceptance and love is the right and wise thing to do, and we make it so. As we do, we are better able to access the inner world of intuitive wisdom which, like a gyroscope, can keep us steady and balanced, and sets the stage for the further reaches of human development based in creativity and compassion.