Guilt and shame are
Well, certainly no one wants to feel either. In my work with clients with chronic pain I have noticed that many of our clients at Restore Fx seem to be
"guilt magnets" and "shame prone". This often goes along with being a "people pleaser", wanting to help others our to the point that you may not take care of yourself very well! People pleasers may cringe at the slightest sign that they may have hurt or offended someone and spend hours thinking about it afterwards. While it's certainly nice to care about other people, often people-pleasers may put themselves in situations where they get over-extended or do things for others that can end up causing them stress or even physical pain.
So what does it mean to be a people pleaser? Or a guilt magnet? Or to be shame prone? Is it all the same? And are they all bad things to be?
Psychology has long made a distinction, however, between guilt and shame. Guilt is actually considered to be a desirable emotion as far as society is concerned. Guilt is defined as feeling bad for something you have DONE. That is different from shame, which is feeling bad for WHO YOU ARE. Consider this-- if we lived in a world where no one ever felt guilty, i.e. never felt bad for hurting someone or cheating or stealing-- then what would keep people from doing whatever they wanted? If you knew that whatever you were going to do would not upset anyone in the slightest then why not do whatever you want?
So if guilt has a function, then what about shame? While I am not an anthropologist, my personal theory is that shame is just overshooting the mark of guilt. I think that Mother Nature gave us the capacity to feel guilt for the reasons stated above, but sometimes that feeling grows too large and instead of being just about our behavior it becomes about our identity, about who we are. Shame does not serve any positive function. While guilt makes us want to move towards people in order to repair the damage, shame makes us feel so bad that we isolate and move away. As shame researcher Brenee Brown puts it "shame corrodes the part of us that thinks we can do better [and therefore is willing to go and say we are sorry]". Shame leads to self destructive behaviors and isolating from others. Shame is toxic.
So what are we to do if we find that, like many clients who come to Restore Fx, you seem to be "shame prone"? What if you tend to feel shame about even small things? Working on shame resilience is an excellent goal for therapy. Shame can only survive in secrecy and shadow. If you share your shame with someone, almost always you will find that the feeling diminishes. When we can see that the other person does not run screaming out of the room after we make our "confession", we don't feel so bad. And sometimes we are even lucky enough to talk to someone who reciprocates our shame tale with one of their own. Hearing someone say "oh, I've done that too" or "I did something else that made me feel the same way" we feel tremendous relief. We feel that we are not alone and perhaps we are not the worst person on the plant.
Talking to a counselor provides a regular opportunity to talk about shameful experiences and feelings. It gives us the opportunity to shine a light of objectivity and neutrality on the shame-drenched sludge that we have been harboring in the deeper recesses of ourselves. And in that light of objectivity and through the compassion of another person we find that the shame shrivels and retreats, growing smaller and less powerful. Keeping the secret of shame is what keeps it alive. Sharing the secret of shame is the antidote.
Researcher Dr. Brene Brown has written several Ted Talks and written several books about shame. She notes that "shame happens between people and needs to be healed between people". I could not agree more. Fortunately for us Dr. Brown has made a career about researching shame and has come up with four common characteristics of people who are "shame resilient":
- People who are shame resilient talk about shame, and when they do, they use the word shame. They talk about what they feel and what they need.
- People who are shame resilient reality check themselves in regards to expectations. They don't let themselves fall for myths of perfection. If they are unsure if an expectation is reasonable ("should I never be late dropping off my kids to school?", "should I always eat raw broccoli for lunch instead of pizza?") they "fact check" it with friends. This helps them avoid buying in to crazy standards like "every woman should be a size 4" or "every man should love to play sports".
- People who are shame resilient understand what shame is and know what tends to trigger them into feeling shame. Due to our different cultures, childhoods, politics, religions and values we are all going to be prone to shame for different reasons. Someone who is an orthodox Jew might feel shame for working on the Sabbath, someone who is a feminist may feel shame for enjoying being seen as a sex symbol. Knowing what will likely trigger your shame is a great way to be ready to do a "fact check" when you first begin to experience it.
- Finally, people who are resilient in regards to shame are able to tell their stories of shame to trusted people. Mind you I said TRUSTED people. Telling your inner-most painful and shameful experiences to someone in the check-out line at the grocery store is not a good idea. That's not taking good care of yourself. But telling it to a trusted friend or family member who you know cares about you and will listen with compassion allows that light of objectivity to shrink the shame goo before it has a chance to spread too far.
If you are interested in learning more about shame I recommend any of Dr. Brene Brown's work on shame and shame resiliency. Another great resource is work on self-compassion, which is another way to fight shame. For more information on self-compassion see Dr. Kristin Neff's website on the subject. She has links to her Ted Talk as well as information about self-compassion and even a self-quiz you can use to see how you rank on self-compassion.
Wishing you health and happiness in your journey to manage your chronic pain,
Program Director, Restore Fx