Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Guilt Theory

I've learned a lot about guilt and shame the last few years. Like too much. One of the popular theories out there is that guilt = "I did something bad" and shame = "I am something bad"

I've been thinking about this, letting it ruminate in my overused brain. It never really clicked for me, the idea of this. I feel a lot of guilt. Some days it is constantly there and no matter what I do I feel guilty.

"I was so lazy today! I didn't even finish the laundry."
"I probably said the wrong thing to my kids. They're going to be so messed up."
"I forgot to . . ."
"I didn't . . ."
"I said . . ."
"When am I ever going to get it right?"

And from what I've heard and experienced, this guilt trend is a problem for a lot of people, particularly the women I associate with.

Here's the thing. I know I am a good person. How do I know? I am in touch with my heart. I know what my desires, wishes and intentions are. I am learning to determine when I make a mistake. A TRUE mistake. And what I feel when I make a mistake is NOT guilt. It's something else.

And I think most people are really good people. Sure we all make mistakes, but deep down, at the heart of us, we are good. So why is there such a problem with guilt and shame, and what is the difference between them?

Here's my new idea. Shame is external. It comes from outside of us. Someone yells at us for something. We feel shame. Easy enough? Guilt is internal, but it is 100% connected to that external shame. We spill a drink and we feel guilty because someone once yelled at us for spilling a drink. Does that make sense? I guess what I'm trying to say is that they really aren't that different. Shame causes us to think something in us is bad, and so every time we are reminded of that, we feel guilty, or we re-experience that shame and call it guilt.

I think they're both useless most of the time. I used to think we needed guilt to steer us in the right direction, to encourage us to make things right when we've made a mistake. But I think that's not always the case. I think we can toss guilt right out the window with shame most of the time. I think guilt is only useful when we know what is right and intentionally go against that knowledge. Then it can lead us to repentance. But I think most of the time it plagues the good and innocent in unnecessary and damaging ways.

So what do we need? What we were born with?

Not shame.

Not guilt.

The light of Christ, which I think most people, Christian or not, will understand better if I call it the "conscience." It's what lets us know that we've done something wrong. Not to torment us, but so that we can fix it and move on. I'm trying to listen to that a little better, be aware of it more often. And when I feel guilt, I try to work through it as quickly as possible and rinse it from my brain. Because I think it really is useless to the person trying to do their best. Guilt is for the truly guilty.

Here's a little poem I wrote about guilt.


Like tangible fog.
A maze of endless burden.

Thick as clumpy, burnt molasses.

The density of concrete prison walls.

Hostage keeper of the mind.

Unwelcome nagging companion.

Slave maker.