Is Guilt Your Friend After All?

If you’ve never heard of Brene Brown, please stop reading this and immediately google and watch her TED Talks. If there is one researcher that has data that we as culture need to hear, I believe it’s her. One of the most compelling aspects of her work is the way in which she distinguishes shame and guilt. It’s important enough that I’ve heard her talk about it just about every time she’s given an opportunity to reach people. You can hear her talk to Oprah about it here:

Did you hear that? When I first heard Brene talk about these findings, I wasn’t all that surprised to hear that shame is correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying, aggression. Shame is an incredibly destructive experience. I was very surprised to hear that guilt is inversely correlated with those outcomes. Wait, you mean that the more that a person is able to feel guilt, the less depressed and/or aggressive he or she will be?

I decided to test this in my own life by identifying a shame trigger and then inviting guilt instead. One of my biggest shame triggers is getting overwhelmed with my children and then losing all my parenting skills. My oldest daughter is, at the time of this writing, four-years-old. I once heard parenting expert, Tina Payne Bryson say, “Forget the Terrible Twos. It’s the Terrible Threes and the F*&@ing Fours.”

This resonated with my experience. I love my eldest daughter dearly. She is funny, creative and she inherited a deep sensitivity from her therapist parents that makes her compassionate, soft-hearted, and kind. This same sensitivity means that when she’s feeling upset, she’s really feeling upset. Sometimes forty minutes into an upsetting experience that only makes sense when you’re four (“I wanted to open the string cheese!!!” “I’m hearing that you wanted to open the string cheese, but I was unaware of that deeply held desire and in lieu of access to a time machine, I’m not sure what we can do about the fact that our last string cheese has already been opened.”), I lose it a little bit—especially if we’re both sleep deprived, which is almost always the case when she’s upset like this. I’ve been known to make absurd threats, “I’m never going to give you cheese again!” or raise my voice, “Stop it! Stop talking to me about cheese,” or even to do a little bit of comparison-based shaming, “Thank you so much, [younger sister], for eating your cheese like a big girl instead of throwing a fit about nothing.” None of these are effective parenting strategies. And as soon as the overwhelm passes, I’m bathed in a warm wash of shame.

This is clearly a moment for self-compassion, but sometimes I have trouble getting there right away when I really feel like I’ve screwed up. So I started asking myself, “would it be possible to feel guilt instead of shame right now?” And you know what? The answer in my experience is yes. I can say to myself, “I’m not a bad parent, but that was a crummy way to behave toward my kid. I feel guilty I did that.” What follows from that is an easier experience accessing self-compassion. I have a much easier time staying mindfully present in my body with the physical sensations of guilt than with the sensations of shame. I can acknowledge that I’m part of a broader community of imperfect parents who are doing the best they can and frequently making messes along the way. And I can offer myself the same kindness that I would offer to a friend who was queasily telling me their own parenting story. What’s more, I can make amends with my daughter without needing a reaction from her that takes away my shame.

Although this relational demand masquerading as an apology comes up less frequently and powerfully with toddlers, it still feels worth mentioning in relation to the general topic of distinguishing guilt from shame. I have found that there is a critical difference in the apologies of someone in guilt and someone in shame. When we’re feeling guilt, we apologize to let the other person know that we see how we affected them, that we feel remorse, and that we plan to work to avoid similar experiences in the future. From guilt, we can respect and allow the autonomy of the other person, and that the pace and shape of their repair process may be different from our own. When we are in shame, it is often the case that we are apologizing to get something from the person: “help me feel redeemed and loveable again in your eyes because I’m caught in unbearable self-loathing right now.” Have you ever seen someone who is apologizing from a position of shame flip to anger when they don’t get the response they’re wanting? That’s why. But I digress.

The key point of this post is to share that when I actively invite guilt rather than shame (and in moments like that, I’m going to feel one of those two), I find easier access to mindfulness, I reestablish my belonging in a community of fallible others, I offer myself the kindness I need, and I can make authentic amends where appropriate. I’d be interested in your experiences if you try this experiment for yourself. I welcome your comments below.

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