I've been noticing for quite awhile now that a lot of people are riddled with shame and have it mixed up with guilt. Lucky for me, in the very beginning of my recovery, my dear sponsor told me the difference: Guilt is the feeling I have when I've violated my values and shame is my fear of being judged or of someone being mad at me.
Of course, I had to do the work of discovering what my actual values were. Her belief was that our values are formed pretty early in our childhoods and from then on they may be largely unconscious. She encouraged me to do a lot of writing about what I thought was right and wrong, from the small things to the large things.
For example: Is it wrong to leave your grocery cart in the store's parking lot without putting it back where it belongs? Is it wrong to park in handicapped parking when you're not handicapped? Is it wrong to have sex with someone other than who you're married to? When you're single, is it wrong to have sex with someone who's married? Is it wrong to gossip? Is it wrong to yell at your kids? Is it wrong to call your spouse a name?
It's amazing how many things there were to consider about what I really believed was right and wrong. She also helped me see that all these rules I had absorbed in my childhood were often quite different than other people's rules, but that I as well as those other people would expect that everyone's rules were the same. This belief causes endless conflict!
When you violate any of these values on any day, she said, you start carrying a heavy load of pain, and your self esteem gets smaller and smaller. The fourth through ninth steps of the program allow us to unload that pain and the tenth step allows us to stay out of pain.
Then, she said, shame is the fear that all of us have of being judged by other people. That fear is why we keep secrets that weigh us down and shrink our self esteem. A lot of the secrets are not about violations of our values - just things we think others would judge us for. If we're single, we worry that others are judging us for not being married. If we weigh more than we think we should, we think others are judging us. We have fears about what our clothes are like, what our home is like, what kind of car we drive and on and on. Secrets are a different burden to carry than guilt but are just as heavy and make us think less of ourselves too.
Luckily, the same steps will relieve the burden and keep it from coming back if we practice them every day. I have no secrets anymore. Of course, I don't tell everyone everything about me, but I make sure that at least one person somewhere knows. I also manage to go against my values, but I correct those mistakes as quickly as I can.
Sometimes it's kind of a pain to always put that grocery cart back and put trash in the nearest trash can, but the lingering, nagging discomfort of not doing it is not worth it. I've only yelled at someone once in the last few years and I caught myself quickly and apologized. Living fairly free of guilt and shame is an incredibly wonderful freedom.
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