Guilt & Shame

Guilt = I did something [bad]
Shame = I am [bad]

This distinction is important to understand in mindfulness and meditation because, while guilt can be a helpful experience, shame only serves to keep us stuck. It is tricky because the culture we live in still believes that shame is a good way to control behavior and keep people in line (there was even a time when they were trying to coin the term, "positive shame" <shudder>). But if we investigate it, it is easy to see how shame keeps us defensive, protective, and stuck.

Brene Brown writes: "When we apologize for something we've done, make amends or change a behavior that doesn't align with our values, guilt - not shame - is most often the driving force. We feel guilty when we hold up something we've done or failed to do against our values and find they don't match up. Its an uncomfortable feeling, but a helpful one. The psychological discomfort, something similar to cognitive dissonance, is what motivates meaningful change. Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame's is destructive. In fact, in my research I found that shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better" (Daring Greatly, pg 72)

On the other hand, when we feel shame, we are more likely to protect our self. We might blame others or rationalize or defend what we did event if we genuinely know it was in error. The reason is that, since shame is a most primitive experience and IS a feeling of self - if this action is [bad] that means I am [bad]. Since - no matter how self-destructive we may seem to be - there is a part of us that defends us -- we end up defending the very thing we might otherwise want to change. This is one of the big problems with shame - we grow up linking actions with self and so it is hard to change the actions.

In meditation, there is actually the idea that increasing one's relationship to "Positive guilt" (not "positive shame") can be strengthening and healing to the sense of self. We can develop the deep inner strength to admit were we went wrong - allow ourselves to feel the consequences without using it to beat ourselves up, and then make a sort of promise or resolution to not do the same thing again, or at least make our best efforts for a set amount of time.

We can sit, breathe and reflect:
1. What was the thing that was against my own values?
2. How did it affect others (or - if it was against self - how did it affect self and how might this also affect others)? --allow yourself to compassionately get in touch with this.
3. What specifically do you resolve to do differently? Make the promise to do this differently just for 24 hours.
4. Return to trust in the intelligence of things. All things have intelligence, even when we don't see it. There is a wisdom to all behaviors, even when we call them stupid. Trust that there was essential learning in this both for yourself and for the people who may have been hurt by the actions.
5. Resolve again, and see if this process makes it easier to forgive yourself for the past mistake. Know that it was not an element of you and so it is changeable. Even if it is not easier to forgive, at least intellectually do so - let yourself understand that forgiveness will allow you to do better.

Shame is a different sort of thing - perhaps even less an emotion than a sensation. Though it is something that does happen explicitly sometimes and can have a thought process, emotion, and we actively do it to others or ourselves, it is primarily an implicit experience. It is a primitive function that is likely a product of the dorsal vagal complex, right brain and muscle memory. This is extremely primary attachment stuff where emotional rejection = death and so shame = physical pain as it is just as essential to be safe in the tribe as it is to pull your hand out of the fire.

Mindfulness of shame: we can be aware of when it is coming up and when our value is getting tied to what we do. We can remind ourselves that someone not liking our idea or our work does not take away our value. We can practice prioritizing courage rather than success or praise. However, I also know that only taking actions can be exhausting if there is a mis-match to the implicit states. This is why is it also important to practice in meditation and hypnosis (deep-dive meditation) a relearning of basic safety of the nervous system. It may come in the form of forgiveness or cleansing, but it leads to the understanding that there was nothing to forgive. At the soul level, we can come to believe we are always safe, AND we can have compassion for the physical body that wants survival and that has been through some perilous times in the past. Over time, we can relearn our basic goodness and come to have an understanding of ourselves that allows us to change rather than berate.

Here is a recorded deep-dive theta meditation (can be used as hypnosis) to help with shame.