Guilt is the story of my life.
I wish I were a better mother.
I wish I were a better friend.
I wish I were a better person.
I fail myself in so many ways it’s hard to list them all.
And, the more guilt I feel, the more other people benefit.
Guilt makes me work harder. I ask for less. I’m always available. I’m no threat to anyone as long as I think I can’t possibly measure up.
It’s hard to see how anyone feels good enough these days. Not with the competition that’s out there.
Can any of us hope to look as good as a Kardashian, parent as naturally as Jessica Alba, have a career as spectacular as Ariana Huffington, or keep a house as well as Martha Stewart?
Of course not.
And let’s be honest: all the advice out there doesn’t help.
Although it’s offered with the best of intentions—to help us lead our best lives—it often serves to make us feel inadequate. I’m doing it all wrong. I should be doing it like that. I’m hopeless.
But wait a minute…
Surely guilt is a good thing?
If people didn’t feel guilty, they wouldn’t feel motivated to change. Guilt keeps us on the straight and narrow. It pushes us to improve.
Therapists distinguish between guilt and its darker cousin, shame. Guilt is a one-off. You feel it about something you did. Shame is chronic. You feel it about who you are.
As shame researcher Brené Brown says, it’s the difference between making a mistake and being a mistake.
Guilt can be healthy, while shame never is. If you do something wrong, you can do it better next time. If YOU are wrong, you’re screwed.
It doesn’t help that guilt and shame form the basis of a certain style of parenting. How often did you hear, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” while growing up? Parents feel no guilt over embarrassing their offspring with the intent of teaching them a lesson.
The lesson some children learn, however, is that they’re bad. Nothing they can do will ever be good enough. They grow up to become people pleasers, on constant alert for how their behavior affects others.
Ever felt guilty for being a people pleaser? Then you can how there’s no winning. Whatever you do, you’ll feel guilty for it.
The more of a hold guilt takes over you, the more everything you say and do is open to criticism. I should have worded that better, I should have planned better, I should have seen how that would affect him.
Life is one test after another, and you never get a perfect score. So you try harder. You accept more responsibility. You consider every possible outcome.
And you fail. Of course you fail.
The guilt game is rigged; you can’t win it. But you can get hooked on trying. It’s as addictive as gambling.
Dr. Oz is blunt about why guilt is bad for us. Psychological effects aside, it can kill us.
Guilt can shorten your life. It weakens your immune system … [and increases] your risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety disorders.
So how do you break free from the habit of chronic guilt?
You play a game.
It’s called “Name the Shame.”
It requires two steps.
- Notice when shaming behavior is occurring.
- Tell yourself, “Fascinating. I do believe some shaming is going on.”
You’ve got to play this game to believe it.
Naming shame does something to it. It exposes it. Instead of buying into the belief that you did something wrong, you start to ask larger questions about what is really going on.
Before I began naming the shame, I didn’t even realize when other people were shaming me. I thought they were justifiably calling me out on inadequacies in my behavior. Really? I’m being a bad mother? Oh dear…
So maybe I didn’t quite understand what I did wrong, but it must have been wrong, because no one verbally attacks another person for absolutely no reason at all.
I get it now.
Guilt and shame are powerful tools of control.
If you can make another person feel ashamed—even better, if you can make them feel guilty without ever clearly explaining what they did wrong—then you’ve got them over a barrel. They’ll do anything to make it up to you, even if they don’t understand why. That’s because they’re good people. (Shaming works best on good people.)
These days, I don’t buy into it. I name it instead.
I tell myself, “That person is trying to shame me. Hmm. That’s interesting.”
I still listen, but I don’t automatically feel horribly guilty just because they’re implying I should.
“Name the Shame” doesn’t stop there.
Where you’ll play it most is inside the privacy of your own head.
You’d be amazed at how much you shame yourself. When looking in the mirror: “Crikey, my skin looks awful.” When working: “I can’t believe I forgot. How stupid was that?” In relationships: “I don’t know what he could possibly see in me.”
We shame ourselves more than anyone else ever could. We’re our own captive audience.
When you start playing “Name the Shame” with yourself, you may start to find that the little voice inside that’s so intent on shaming you isn’t actually you. It’s the voice of your mother, or a teacher, or another influential adult from your past.
Once you get good at seeing when other people are shaming you and when you’re doing it to yourself, you’re not done yet. You’ve got one more level left to master:
Naming when other people are shaming other people.
Shaming happens everywhere. It happens all the time. It happens on Twitter and in the news. It happens in talk shows and on the radio. It happens in offices and in schools.
Although many people mistake shaming for boldly calling out injustice where they see it, remember the distinction between guilt and shame. You can always point out when someone’s behavior is wrong. But that doesn’t mean the entire person is wrong.
When you think about how it feels to never be good enough, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. Change is impossible without hope. People who feel that they’ll never be good enough stop trying after a while.
So feel guilty every now and again. It can do you good, in small doses. But don’t jump to the conclusion that you must be bad. When you find yourself thinking that, name it.
“That’s shaming. And I don’t do that to myself anymore.”
That’s when you discover that no one ever had the right to make you feel small, not even yourself.