Is it possible, we have all felt guilty at one point or another in our life?
Perhaps we failed to return a promised phone call to a friend who was concerned about our well-being. Perhaps we locked ourselves into our room, went inside our head, and kept thinking how ‘utterly useless’ we might be to ourselves or others.
Whatever the example may be, do you know there is a type of guilt that empowers
and a type of guilt that disempowers?
If this is so, how can we tell the difference between the two so we stop being paralyzed by disempowering guilt?
Let me share with you this story…
I met my friend Jay thirteen years ago. I was sitting on the bleachers at my local indoor swimming pool when she walked up to me, said hello, and asked to sit beside me. I did not know this person and felt super shy in front of her.
Have you ever felt super shy in front of another person?
I felt super shy because I was afraid I might do or say something stupid that would somehow make her not like me or walk away from me forever.
As it was extremely early in the morning, she asked me if I wanted to go grab a coffee together. Shyly saying that I did not drink coffee, she rolled her eyes and said this was about to change. “It’s 5:30 am for God’s sake! Our kids will be here training for a while. Come have coffee with me!”
We walked together to the nearest coffee shop and I must admit it felt weird drinking a hot beverage with 5 sugars and 4 creams in it. What can I say? I did not like the taste of coffee then!
Have you ever overcompensated to fit in?
I overcompensated by adding too much cream and sugar because I not only wanted her to like me, I also wanted to be more like her: drink coffee while thinking it tasted great.
Over the next thirteen years, we shared many coffees together. We went to McDonald’s and ordered our usual: 2 large coffees with 2 creams and 1 honey, as well as 2 large fries with hot mustard dip.
One day, over such a cup of coffee, I shared with her how I had made up my mind and was filing for divorce. Maybe she could see how angry, exhausted, and severely depressed I was?
Though she tried her best to be there for me in the following months, calling me almost every day to check on me, I kept withdrawing from the outside world and stopped answering all phone calls, including hers.
Have you ever withdrawn out of feeling overwhelmed?
I withdrew because I did not know how to cope emotionally. I felt like a massive failure, like I was ‘utterly useless’, like I was ‘totally unable’ to put my life ‘all together’.
Then another terrible thing happened. A drunk driver doing street racing burned a red light. In the incoming car was Jay’s parents. They were killed instantly.
Jay sank in a dark depression, she was missing her parents terribly. She ate little, cried a lot, and wrote dark posts on Facebook.
It looked like she needed a friend, someone who stood by her side while she was figuring herself out. In her eyes, that friend was me. Little did she know the guilt I had once been feeling had since turned into disempowering guilt aka shame. I kept abandoning her the same way I kept abandoning myself… I left her feeling utterly alone.
Have you ever felt utterly alone?
I felt utterly alone because I was shut down emotionally, I was numb, and in that hurting place within, there was very little room, almost zero, for having compassion for anyone, including myself.
Let’s stop here for a moment and ask ourselves…
What is the difference between guilt and shame?
Simply put, guilt is about a behaviour and shame is about the whole self.
For example, I felt guilty about not returning Jay’s phone calls the first few times. Guilt is always about a behaviour that is incongruent with who we are at the core of our being.
Though I believed I was a decent person at the time, I was behaving like a jackass. As time went on and I still kept failing to do the rightful thing, return Jay’s phone calls, my guilt turned into shame: I started believing I was the ‘worst’ friend ever, a ‘complete’ loser, a ‘total’ failure. I was certainly not contemplating each my behaviours separately. No, I bundled them all under the label Reject while locking myself in my bedroom and thinking I was ‘utterly useless’.
Let it be known that empowering guilt has huge compassion in it.
When feeling empowering guilt, we know we did something wrong and a big part of us also believes we shall do different next time around. We feel hopeful towards our future.
Disempowering guilt (shame) has mostly zero compassion in it.
When feeling shameful, we believe our whole person is wrong and that we have almost zero chance of being or doing different next time around. We feel hopeless towards our future.
Let’s recap so far…
What is the type of guilt that empowers?
Feeling healthy guilt empowers because it dissociates a person from their behaviours. Healthy guilt allows us to have compassion for our self and others.
What is the type of guilt that disempowers?
Feeling unhealthy shame disempowers because it associates the whole person to their behaviours. Shame exists due to a lack of compassion towards self or others.
Having said all this, where do you want to lead your life from: shame, guilt, or compassion?
If you are like me, you might want to embrace compassion with all your heart to guide through potential guilt or shame.
Here are some tips to develop more compassion towards yourself and others:
- When feeling super shy, recite a mantra to yourself. Mantras really do work. A mantra is a positive affirmation stated several times a day in order to reframe the mind to see our self in a more positive light. For example, “I am worthy of a great love.” The best mantras are simple to say and easy to remember.
When I started saying, “I am worthy of a great love”, I noticed I stopped making myself overly concerned with what others might think of me; I was letting go of my guilt and shame. I feel freer, I am having compassion. As a result of being compassionate, I am attracting healthier friendships. The proof? Jay and I have since become solid friends emotionally, friends who can count on each other day or night.
- When feeling the want to overcompensate, ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” Take immediate rightful action to give it to yourself.
When we overcompensate, there is like a part of us that is deeply rejected by us. Somehow – perhaps unconsciously – we believe there is something ‘wrong’ with us and therefore we ‘need’ to be ‘different’. However, when we address this hurting part of us and we give it our love, what do you believe happens to the want to overcompensate out of guilt or shame?
- When feeling overwhelmed, breathe deeply. If what is troubling you is a task, keep breaking it down until you feel yourself breathing deeply again. How can anyone feel like a failure if the next step is going to go pee or read the first page of an assigned reading?
If what is troubling you is you, another person, or an incident, breathe deeply while reciting what is around you: one table, one chair, two pillows… Naming things brings us back into the present moment and the deep breathing signals the brain to let go of the survival mode (anxiety, stress, worry…). Let’s face it. Unless we are emotionally present and out of survival mode, how possible is it to start having compassion for our self or others? Therefore, breathe deeply no matter what.
I would like to leave with you this quote from Maya Angelou: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
IN ALL CASES, HAVE COMPASSION.
About the Author: Anne BEAULIEU is one of Your Monthly Mentors, an international speaker, empowering coach, and thought leader in the field of Emotional Intelligence and the Founder of Walking Inside Resources Inc. based in Vancouver, British Columbia. As an accomplished author and community builder, Anne is a powerful catalyst for positive change and embodies successful life strategies that keep empowering men and women across the globe. Read More…