Monday, February 24, 2014

Guilt, Shame and Regret: Living With It Or Letting Go

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Shame is closely related to guilt, but there is a key qualitative difference. No audience is needed for feelings of guilt, no one else needs know, for the guilty person is his own judge. Not so for shame. The humiliation of shame requires disapproval or ridicule by others. If no one ever learns of a misdeed there will be no shame, but there still might be guilt. Of course, there may be both. The distinction between shame and guilt is very important, since these two emotions may tear a person in opposite directions. The wish to relieve guilt may motivate a confession, but the wish to avoid the humiliation of shame may prevent it. 

–Paul Ekman

At one point in our lives all of us experience both guilt and shame to varying degrees. But what’s worse? Knowing that you did something wrong and feeling guilty, but being too afraid to tell? For example, cheating on your wife and carrying the burden of that secret. Or is it shame? Telling your wife that you cheated and then before you know it, her family, friends, and maybe the whole town knows about it? Then you’ll likely have both. Guilt because you know that what you did was wrong, and shame because you now have an audience for your wrongdoing. People know, so you have something to be ashamed and embarrassed of.

In my opinion, guilt alone will kill you. Guilt is worse because it’s useless. It makes you feel useless, hopeless, low, and it doesn’t ever seem like it’s enough to make a person change direction or grow. However, like Ekman said, the burden of guilt might drive a person to a confession. That’s where shame often comes in, and where progress is made.

 

“Regret nothing because at one point in time it was exactly what you wanted” is a quote that I used to live by when I was younger...when I was naive and thought that life was that simple. I had this quote on the cork board in my bedroom, the mirror in my bathroom, and even on my Myspace page (eek). As an adult, I’ve learned that this quote isn’t as valid as I had always hoped.  As an adult, I’ve learned that we don’t always do things because they’re “exactly what we wanted”. Sometimes we do things out of the belief that they’re necessary, because we’ve exhausted all of our other options, because we’re forced to, because at the time we thought it was the “right” thing to do, because we thought it would be what was best for us. Sometimes we do things that are the opposite of what we want, in hopes that it’ll help us get what we need. And then there are those of us who suffer from mental illnesses or disabilities that prevent us from even having the ability to really choose our actions at times. Those of us whose emotions are sometimes not influenced by outside forces, or even our own rational thoughts. But rather, our emotions, thoughts, and actions are influenced by hormone imbalances, structural differences in our brains, etc. Those of us whose well-being is affected by forces that most people will never experience, but I don't want to get into that.

I do believe there is some truth to 
“Regret nothing because at one point in time it was exactly what you wanted”, but it’s not black and white. Life isn’t as black and white as I wanted to believe it was when I was 12 years old. Life is full of blurred lines, grey areas and overlaps. However, it can still be black and white, just not in the way that we wish it could be. Life can have those pure white moments, where everything seems so clear. And those pitch black areas where you feel completely lost and you can’t even begin to see what you should be doing or which way is up…so you just start to frantically wander. Sometimes you find your way out and sometimes you dig yourself even deeper into the darkness. 


Guilt is something I grew accustomed to while growing up, but it never lasted long. I was that 8 year old kid who would take $3.00 off of her mom’s dresser so she could buy a hot lunch at school…and then run back a few minutes later and put it back, along with a pocket full of whatever change I had because I felt so bad for even considering taking a few dollars from my own mum. When we all know that if I just asked for it she probably would have given it to me. For the majority of my life I haven’t been very good with guilt. Once I acknowledge that I have done something wrong, the guilt sets in and it eats me alive and tears me up until I confess.
Shame on the other hand, is something I’m not quite as used to. Yes, there is a certain amount of shame that comes with every confession. Once you free yourself of guilt, there is a period of time where you have to deal with shame. The shame of your mum finding out about your new tattoo and the fact that you hid it, the shame of your parents finding out that you had been experimenting with drugs, the shame of your parents finding out that you lost your virginity, the shame of your little sister having to take care of you when you come home completely trashed. Yes, unfortunately those are all real life examples from my life, ha! And I'm sure a lot of you have been there too. But no matter how ashamed you feel or how much it feels like the end of the world, the shame fades with time until it no longer hurts you or those involved. And eventually, you aren’t ashamed of these things at all because you realize that they’re all a part of life. Sometimes though, shame lasts a lot longer than it should. And when that happens is when we start to realize that we may be living with regret, which is a much more difficult and seemingly permanent thing.

There are the smaller regrets we have that vary in significance. The silly tattoo I got behind my ear as a last minute decision that I just
prefer wasn’t there, but I often forget that I even have it until somebody asks me about it. Or the fact that I didn’t apply to Universities when I was in high school. I took AP classes, graduated with honors, participated in extracurricular activities, etc. I could have easily gotten into a nice University but for whatever reason, it wasn’t very high on my priority list at the time. I regret this because I know that right now I could be graduating with my Bachelor’s Degree like some people my age and getting a better job. But this “regret” provided me with a blessing in disguise. For many years I thought that I had wanted to pursue nursing. If I hadn’t gotten my job at the nursing home in 2012 (which I have since left), I never would have learned that I didn’t really want to be a nurse and I would be graduating with a degree and going into a field that didn’t make me happy. So, while I still wish that I would have worked to get into a University, I’m glad that I figured out that I wanted to go down a different path. Those are regrets that I can live with and they’re also things I can change. I can go to a University once I have the money and I can pursue my dream career. Heck, I can even that one tattoo removed someday. Sometimes though, there are the regrets that haunt you almost every day. Things you did that you can’t take back and things you did that have caused large amounts of pain to you and those who love you. At this point there is only one thing you can do, and that is to try your best to accept the past for what it is and make sure it doesn’t become a part of your future. Unless that is, that you learn from it and apply it to your life so you never make the same mistakes again. The last few years I’ve been trying to decide if regret is permanent or if we can move on, forget, and truly rid ourselves of regret.

Rather than telling myself “Regret nothing because at one point in time it was exactly what you wanted”, I choose to tell myself not to regret anything because everything that I have done, good and bad, has made me who I am today. All the things that I have done that have made me proud, and all the things I have done that have caused guilt, shame, and regret have made me who I am and will continue to shape me into the best person I can be. So while you might be feeling guilt, shame, or regret right now…just remember that all of these things have made you who you are.




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