Guilt and Shame

Insert joke about Jewish mothers here.

A few days before my C-section, my wonderful doula came to my house to guide me through an exercise called havening. Havening is essentially a form of guided meditation – a partner gently strokes your face, shoulders, and hands while you repeat words you’ve chosen to express how you feel and how you’d like to feel. My doula offered this exercise as a different kind of labor coaching, since we knew at that point that I was going to make it to my scheduled C-section and I still had a lot of anxiety going into it. We started the exercise and I began to feel calm. And then I felt deeply sad. I sobbed for almost an hour. My doula sent me to her mentor, who walked me through a more successful havening session. In the course of this meditation, I delved deep into my anxieties – not why I felt the way I felt, just peeling back the layers to find the root emotion behind all of it. And I discovered that underneath my anxiety and rage and loneliness were just guilt and shame.

We often simplify negative emotions by saying that we hate what we don’t understand, but I’m pretty much dedicating my career to showing that, historically, that isn’t true. Instead, I think that we hate what makes us feel inadequate. We hate being made to feel that we should have done something that we didn’t do, or that we should be a way that we are not. In that sense, it is a short, defensive hop from shame to rage, from guilt to anxiety, and from any of these to self-imposed loneliness.

Guilt is the feeling of missed opportunity. We feel guilty when we use our agency to purposefully fail to conform to expectations without sufficient justification. We don’t meet the obligations outlined to us by social norms or our own ethical standards and we regret these to the point that they reflect on our worth as people. We are able to trigger this feeling in others simply by reminding them of their social or moral failures and this becomes a powerful tool for manipulation.

Shame, on the other hand, is a sense of worthlessness. It is embarrassment at what or who we are, once we realize that we do not conform to expectations for reasons that are perhaps beyond our control. Shame follows from an inability to control ourselves and our surroundings, and so an inability to prevent the incongruity between expectations and reality. Many of our earliest memories are of shame, as we discover ourselves and construct our identities in relation to other people, and learn what parts of ourselves to hide because they are perceived as unacceptable or undesirable to others. While someone can force guilt on someone else simply through the reminder that they chose to do wrong, shame is inflicted by imposing a standard that is contrary to a person’s truth. Guilt between two parties is based on those parties having the same standard, whereas shame is based on one person’s standard in conflict with another’s norm.

For me, guilt and shame go hand in hand as part of our education as social beings. Once we learn to be ashamed of ourselves in some way, once we internalize our first lessons of unacceptability, we have laid the groundwork for all future instances of guilt as we falsely establish that we are capable of accounting for this shame. When we don’t prevent situations that lead to our shame becoming public, reopening that first wound of nonconformity, we experience guilt for our inaction. But we fail to realize that often that first shame is contagious – it is merely someone else’s shame, communicated to us through their anger, that neither they nor we have any reason to hold. We are taught to feel shame for nakedness, a parent or a teacher yelling at us with that high-pitched fear and anxiety in their voices. We don’t know why they are yelling, but the emotion in their tone is so primal that it immediately pumps blood into our ears and necks and we will never not feel that way again.

The primacy of guilt and shame make them so difficult to shake off. We can’t explain away that emotion or condition ourselves to it because by the time we realize that it’s nonsensical it’s a Pavlovian response. Guilt and shame always follow reprimand, and we are simply desperate to receive approval and terrified of dissatisfaction. The only people who truly don’t care what anyone else thinks border on sociopathic. I knew someone once who really did not need approval, and she managed to be so self-assured that she completely lacked morality or empathy. For the rest of us, being able to connect with others emotionally means opening ourselves up to these extremely painful emotions.

We can learn to desensitize ourselves to shame and guilt only by actively fighting against it in the moment. We prepare ourselves, tell ourselves there’s nothing to be ashamed of or to feel guilty about. But we need a dummy to fight back against, a person who invokes that most dreaded emotion and to whom we respond No, you’re wrong. In rejecting them we reject the feeling itself, retrain the response. But to be able to turn off that reflex, we really have to believe that our actions are justified and that the way we are is just fine. Preparing for this isn’t about puffing ourselves up or bolstering our egos, but about becoming completely honest. We need to tell ourselves what we are afraid of. We need to tell other people about our shame. When we internalized that primal shriek of shame, we made it private and hidden, and the more it sits locked away the more power it has over us, threatening to break free. But when we let it free in a safe environment, we have a new reaction from a trusted person, who tells us there’s nothing wrong with who we are or what we do.

I’m thinking of the figure of the primal evil in a lot of fantasy genre fiction – Vatu in Legend of Korra or the Dark One in Wheel of Time – and how these beings somehow manage to gain strength and power while they’re locked away for eternity. This is a good metaphor for our own darkest feelings – beings that feed off of evil, that thrive in the shadows. What defeats them isn’t the blinding light of goodness, but the reality of balance. The hero says No, you can’t take over because your nature is to be canceled out by your equal opposite. Guilt and shame only grow when we hide them, and they can persist when we try to overpower them. But when we uncover them, let them be out in the open, they have nothing to push back against and they become much less threatening.

I still experience guilt and shame – I haven’t miraculously overcome these very basic emotions. But by being open and honest about them I find that I experience a lot less anxiety – they’re no longer the cliff I’m headed for if something goes wrong. I no longer withhold information or push people away because I’m afraid of their misusing this information that I so desperately want to tell them. I take the opportunity of human interaction to figure out my feelings and, when it’s appropriate, to make them known. And I’m happier for it.

This year, not as a resolution, just as a matter of circumstance, I’m giving myself permission to enjoy myself without feeling guilt or shame. I feel a lot of guilt about my upcoming research schedule – I just had two babies, and now I’m turning around and leaving for months at a time. Yes, I miss them when I leave, but I more strongly feel guilty that I’m skipping out on the parenting that I signed up for. But I realized that the more I feel guilt about that, the harder it is to do these research trips. At some point, I have to tell myself it’s ok to go out and have fun, or even just to not be working every second I’m away. Once I decided this, I talked about it with my husband, who is taking on the burden of care while I’m away, and his response was a very reassuring “yes, of course you should have a good time, why wouldn’t you?” So, after reflecting on my guilt and shame, I’m done bracing for a hard year and instead I’m looking forward to the amazing circumstances I have.