Shame & Guilt: The Happiness Destroyer
SHAME & GUILT: THE HAPPINESS DESTROYER
Occasionally I ask the members in my group therapy sessions: “How many of you have some things in your past that you would not like anyone else to know? Usually, the entire group will raise their hands. Without probing into each group member’s past, I go on to explain that all of us have done some things in our life of which we are not particularly proud. And there may be some who may have even had some things happen to them by someone else that they are keeping secret. In either case, the basis for keeping these things secret and not wanting others to know about them will be rooted in two things: Shame and Guilt.
Shame and guilt can be the core of most, if not all, of one’s unhappiness. Yet both shame and guilt are not always bad. There is such a thing as healthy shame and guilt and these are the principles which keep many people from breaking laws, harming others, or performing deeds that would affect others in negative ways. It could be said that healthy shame and guilt keeps our innate urge to be selfish or harm others in check.
I don’t believe we know about shame and guilt until we have been taught what is proper and what is not proper when interacting in society and in our families of origin. And while we are known to be products of our environment, there are some individuals who have not been taught about what may be right or wrong and therefore may possess minimal shame and guilt, if at all. And there are some parents who use shame and guilt to “control” their children . . . to manipulate them to behave the way they want them to or to get from them what they feel they are lacking. Playing the martyr is an example of how this is utilized by a parent or spouse to get love and attention that they feel that don’t have. They suffer or pretend to suffer to instill shame and guilt in someone so that the other person will show them some pity and attention. . . .another form of external control.
It is toxic shame and guilt that destroys one’s happiness and peace of mind. Toxic shame and guilt consist of the following beliefs: Guilt is: I DID something wrong. Shame is: I AM something wrong.
We often hear, “We’re as sick as our secrets,” and to this I must agree. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep from being “found out.” One must be ever vigilant and looking over their shoulder to keep others from finding out whatever it is they don’t want others to know. Shame and guilt affects all of our genetic Basic Needs of Survival, Love and Belonging, Power, Freedom, and Fun.
Some cultures as well as religions are more prone to be susceptible to Shame and Guilt than others. I’ll just mention that for that would be a different topic in itself. I have heard it said that Jews invented Shame and Guilt and Catholics rented it from them. There does, however, seem to be a difference between Jewish Guilt and Christian Guilt. Christians tend to feel guilt about something they did and Jews tend to feel guilty about something they didn’t do.
A leading cause of substance abuse is found in what is referred to as the Shame and Guilt Spiral. Drugs and alcohol put to sleep what would make a person feel bad. As long as they are high or buzzed, the things that normally tend to cause one to feel bad go away, albeit temporarily. What happens next is the spiral. Once sober, they begin to feel badly about what they just did (drinking or using) on top of all of the other things of which they feel bad. They just added another 5 pounds of shame and guilt in a 3 pound container. The quickest remedy? Drink or use some more. This behavior continues to spiral downward until they either get help or die.
One of the necessary approaches in dealing with addicts or alcoholics is to help the person release or let go of all their shame and guilt. You don’t have to be an addict or an alcoholic for this to be effective in your life. Anyone who harbors shame and guilt will not know true happiness and peace of mind until they are rid of their shameful and guilt ridden thoughts
What is often amazing to both myself and to my clients is to discover that much of what they are keeping secretive, along with the fear of being discovered, is so trite in nature that if or when others do find out, the discoverers would either be understanding, bored, or not even give a damn. All the stress and fears of being discovered are self-imposed. It would also appear that those who are most susceptible to shame and guilt by the manipulation of others who believe what one “should’ think or do, are the most easily taken advantage of. These individuals have a very hard time in saying “no” to others and end up doing things that they really would rather not do only to please the person making the request. They would create feelings of shame and guilt in themselves if they refused the requests of others. Then they begin to feel angry and turn their anger inwardly (depression) because they would feel guilty and shameful if they let their anger out. Continually giving up one’s own wants and needs for the sake of someone else’s wants and needs will lead to unhappiness. Once a person shows signs of continually trying to please others, others will begin to take advantage of this trait. No one can walk on you if you don’t lay down.
In A.A., those members who seek recovery along with their sobriety do more than merely attend meetings. They put the twelve steps into action with the help of a sponsor. Ridding one’s self of shame and guilt is like having the weight of the world taken off one’s shoulders. It’s like being able to exhale after holding your breath for years. I have even witnessed some individuals break down in tears of joy after letting go of their shame and guilt. It is truly a sight to behold and an experience one never forgets once they release it. The process involves making amends wherever possible, forgiving one’s self, and realizing that they are humans who are prone to make mistakes and yet still be loved; feeling worthy of giving and receiving love.
One’s lack of self love is due to their perception about themselves which is laden in shame and guilt. The second genetic need for Love and Belonging is so powerful that when adequately acquired, all of the other genetic needs seem to be more easily attained. Not only does one need Love and Belonging from others but from one’s self. How can you expect others to love you if you don’t like and love yourself?
Personally, I contend that when a person finds love through someone else’s acceptance, they are actually feeling love for themselves as much as for their partner. It is the concept of, “I like me better because you love me.” Love for another person enhances our need for love of our self.
In the movie, “As Good As It Gets,” Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) begins to realize he is miserable without love and belonging? He finds himself being attracted to Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) and on a casual date he says to her, “You make me want to be a better man.” Of course, Simon’s dog also played a part of getting him to begin utilizing a few acts of kindness as a result of love Melvin has reached an epiphany and realizes that if he wants love and belonging, he needs to stop being such a jerk that drives others away. He’s beginning to deal with his shame and guilt. And what does this all mean? If you want things in life to be better, the first person who needs to change is one’s self.