The Key to Healing Shame; and How It’s Profoundly Different from Guilt
I’m really happy we produced Emmett Miller’s exceptionally powerful, high-test guided imagery for healing shame. It’s arguably one of his all-time best meditations, ever. Please check it out.
Now, although I agree with Emmett’s insights on Youtube about the difference between guilt and shame, I also adhere to the even more basic, old fashioned, rock-bottom, psychodynamic distinction between these two highly yucky feelings.
It goes like this:
Guilt is what we feel when we’ve violated our own values and beliefs on how ‘good’ we should be and how we walk in the world. It can be a ‘bad’ behavior (shop-lifting, lying, trash-talking, bullying, betraying) or a ‘bad’ feeling (envy, anger, covetousness, taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, selfishness, feeling superior).
It’s based on how we were brought up, and exists in our adult selves as an internally installed set of norms and values that have become so much a part of us, that when we go against them, there’s a sense of internal discomfort related to breaching our own standards. That guilt can creep up on us or sometimes just whack us upside the head.
[And in this paradigm, it follows that guilt is not inherently a pathological state – people who feel normal, negotiable amounts of guilt when they’ve done something wrong, are less likely to do it again. That’s called healthy guilt. (Of course, people who flagellate themselves over having normal, human, less-than-admirable feelings – that’s another story.)]
But back to the main point: It doesn’t matter if somebody else sees this ethical ‘violation’ or not. It’s our judgment of ourselves and it’s built-in. In the posttraumatic stress literature, it’s aptly called “moral injury”. In psychodynamic terms, this is the super-ego that has become an organic part of our ego’s automatic executive function.
But shame is different. Shame is public at its essence and related to how others see us and judge us. It’s about feelings of humiliation and embarrassment that arise from public censure, ridicule, exposure or contempt… a feeling of being ‘less than’ the people around us. It’s about wishing you could just disappear from view – the view of others.
Eventually, we can adopt this oppressive, spirit-killing view of ourselves, and we become as harsh, judgy, critical and mean-spirited toward ourselves as those people or the larger society with the pointy, wagging fingers. We shame ourselves by seeing ourselves from the viewpoint of external judgment.
Shame is possibly one of the most miserable, squirmy-uncomfortable emotional states people can experience. It runs deep and it’s hard to get rid of, once acquired, especially, as Emmett says, from childhood.
And because it can impair our confidence and faith in ourselves, not to mention our ability to achieve and perform, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious cycle, the snake that swallows its tail and goes round and round and round.
How to interrupt the cycle? Emmett’s imagery goes right to the answer, taking us back to a time when we were innocently self-loving; to times – no matter how meager – we felt appreciated, loved, acknowledged, seen, admired, understood, valued…. And then we replay those times, over and over, until they crowd out the shame.
Because - and here’s the stunningly good news, the miraculous power of guided imagery: Even if your childhood consisted of 9 parts shame to one part value, we can re-experience the valued times 9 parts to one – and redeem our humiliated selves.
It’s all the same to the genius of the body-mind-spirit – experiencing our worth and goodness in the sacred space of the imaginal realm, over and over, does in fact reformulate our past, heal our shame and change our lives.
Give it a try. The results can be pretty astonishing. Really. I’m too old to lie to you.