Series: Emotions You Thought You Knew
We experience guilt when we feel responsible for expectations that are not met. We may have said or done something intentionally or unintentionally that harmed someone else. Guilt is asking us to right the wrong.
Guilt is not so much an emotion as a state of being. You are either guilty or not guilty of something. Our response to that guilt can be a range of emotion such as fear, anger, sadness, regret, confusion, defensiveness, embarrassment, remorse and more.
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How do we navigate guilt well?
It may sound strange but I have come to appreciate the gift of guilt. What guilt does is allow us to line up our current behavior next to the ideal of who we want to be. We can compare and see where we have fallen short and where we can improve. Guilt spurs us on to become better. Instead of interpreting struggle as failure, guilt helps us learn and grow from our mistakes.
Guilt is Not Shame
As Brene Brown describes:
GUILT is I DID SOMETHING BAD.
SHAME is I AM BAD.
When we are experiencing guilt, there is somewhere to go. As uncomfortable as it can be, at least there is a next step to take to become better. When we are experiencing shame there is nowhere to go.
Shame doesn’t just point out our behavior, it shoves into the depths of our identity and worth as a person. It names us as defective and unfixable. It makes us question if we are worthy of love and belonging. Living with this question mark hanging over our head is an exhausting hustle, running from the fear of unworthiness by desperately trying to prove our ourselves as worthy in every possible way.
Too often I hear people use the word guilt when they are really speaking of shame. This keeps shame camouflaged, blending the diminishing impact into the surrounding environment. When we identify shame as shame we can resist the devastating impact and learn to live more free and full.
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Stop Taking Responsibility for Things That Are Not Yours
Shame sneaks in disguised as guilt when we take on responsibilities that aren’t ours. For example: Many of us feel the need to shield other people from pain. It can become a report card on how we are doing. If my spouse or kids or employees are happy then I am doing okay as a human being. If I can’t rescue them then I am failing and a failure. This is absolutely unrealistic. Pain is a part of life and happiness is fleeting. There are way too many factors to control or keep track of. We are in this together, and none of us has the magic wand to make it all go away. So wind back your expectations to a healthy place, do what you can and when situations arise ask, “Is this mine to take?” Learn to give others the dignity of navigating their own path as you navigate yours.
Comparative Suffering is NOT Helpful
When something good happens to us it is often hard not consider those who have it worse off. As good fortune shines its light on us, we are aware of those still in the shadows. The temptation is to compare and feel guilty and to not shine so bright so others don’t feel as bad. While it is important to be conscientious and kind, it is unhelpful to diminish ourselves to help others. All it ends up doing is making us all live smaller. In fact, if you talk to those who are not experiencing good fortune, they don’t want you to stifle your joy, they want you to share it. It becomes an encouragement and light that we all get to share.
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- We can learn to quiet the voice of guilt or shame in the places they have no business being.
- We can learn to thank guilt for its gift of showing us our great potential and spurring us on towards it.