[Habits of Confusion] 4. Shame and Guilt

We often find ourselves having to make difficult choices. But what makes them difficult? A part of us wants to choose something, yet another one wants to choose something else. What are these parts of us and why do they have different perspectives on what the right choice is? Why are we split in such a way that we are unable to act as a unified whole?

It is as though we can feel the pull of opposing forces, each having a strong claim and we tend to agree with both views, because both views have legitimacy. How are we able to carry these contradictory tendencies and how can we expect to find clarity without elucidating the motivations and reasons of each of these split personalities?

If these sub-personalities had a voice what would they say? What would they really say, if they were radically honest? If they didn’t hide behind good intentions, obligations and blame? If they took full responsibility for the way they feel?

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I think they would sound much different than what they would appear initially.  Many of our internal conflicts stem from the way we frame our problems, from the lack of willingness to take ownership for our problems and from not listening to our intuitive guidance. We often aren’t able to recognize our true motivations for the way we act, because we are blinded by ideas of how things are supposed to be, by what is expected of us and by unconscious fears.

Two of the things that guide our behaviors without us realizing are guilt and shame. We want to do something that would be good for us, yet that would mean letting people down. This conflict causes anxiety, because provoking negative emotions in another person creates the impression that we would be doing something bad. We would have to be bad to disappoint somebody like that, they counted on us for this. If we are used to taking on other people’s emotions, then we feel responsible for the way they feel. We forget that everybody is in charge of their own state of mind and we make it our mission to do whatever is in our power to keep other people’s approval. Then we start getting resentful and bitter because in essence we are shifting responsibilities, we take on the responsibility of other people’s emotions, yet we hold them accountable for our lack of happiness.

The thought behind it is something like ‘fine, I’ll do this to keep you happy, but just so you know, I hate it and you are responsible for making me do this.’ If we were honest about what was happening we would find feelings of obligation, duty, shame and guilt beneath this attitude. If they can be recognized as such, then we need not act on them, since we know that our actions do not stem from love, but from wounding. We would liberate ourselves from these feelings and we would liberate the other person as well from deriving strength/value/security from outside of themselves. They would no longer rely on our actions for those things which would give them the chance to empower themselves. When we take responsibility for the way we feel, we help other people to do the same.

“There’s such a thing as healthy shame. Such shame, which is directed at our behavior, catalyzes our conscience. In stark contrast, unhealthy shame, which is directed at our being, catalyzes our inner critic, which commonly masquerades as our conscience.”

– Robert Augustus Masters, Bringing Our Shadow Out Of The Dark

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Sometimes it is difficult to identify these emotions because the mind can engage in rationalizations and justifications for the way we behave, thinking it is acting on good intentions. But there is a difference between doing something out of love and doing the same thing out of obligation. The former is done wholeheartedly, without any regrets or resistance while the latter needs plenty of convincing to do and plenty of assurances to be given in order to be done. The former feels right and fills you up with joy, while the latter is done in order to be congruent with your idea of what the right thing to do is.

For instance, I once had to decide whether I was going to go back to my old job. I was extremely confused about it and I didn’t know what to do. I spent a whole month trying to figure it out. I knew I needed money, since I was pretty much broke, yet I didn’t really want to do it anymore. In my mind I kept telling myself how I needed to be financially independent and how other people needed to know I was self-reliant and I found all sorts of reasons to justify to myself that going back was the right thing to do. But this didn’t last, because these lies had caused so much friction that I couldn’t take it any longer and I finally decided, in spite of all opposition, that I wasn’t going to go back regardless the consequences. Of course, being independent is important, it’s just that for me going back at that point would not have been a good decision since I needed to move forward.

Other times, I would continue to live up to other people’s expectations and always feel guilty when I wasn’t be able to live up to them. I would find myself feeling suffocated by obligation and I would feel guilty about not being able to do things out of love. The more I did them, the more my feelings grew into resentment and bitterness. And I found myself getting more and more drained and weakened by having to do those things that seemed like the right thing to do. But they weren’t, they were just the shoulds I had internalized to justify the fact that I was doing these things with good intentions.

Shame and guilt can take various disguises. Robert Augustus Masters identified in his book Bringing Your Shadow Out Of The Dark three disguises that they can take: aggression, emotional disconnection and narcissism. Aggression can be elicited when we feel ashamed, yet we are unable to accept that part of ourselves that makes mistakes and so we try to control the world around us into not disturbing us with these perceptions of wrongdoing that we find so difficult to accept in ourselves. Emotional disconnection is another strategy we can employ when we feel shame. Our emotions can be so overwhelming that we cannot accept the things we have said and done and so we resort to emotional disconnection as a form of self-preservation. We unconsciously believe that numbing our shame can stop the pain, but all it does is anesthetize us to the richness of life. The third means of escape from shame is narcissism, where we inflate our sense of self to such a degree that we cannot accept any criticism.  We don’t want to feel shame, we associate it with a feeling of being bad, of being annihilated and instead of accepting these feelings, we often try to hide beneath a mask of authority or competence or importance in order to discourage others from questioning us ever again.

“When I was eight or nine, I proudly brought home my report card. It was packed with As. I showed it to my father, and without looking at me he muttered something about “What the hell good is this when you can’t even screw in a bolt straight?” I slouched beneath the crushing shame I felt at hearing these words. I’d already learned that if I couldn’t master a skill, such as screwing in a bolt straight, right away, he wouldn’t give me a second chance. The lesson, which he drove into me over and over, was that being successful meant being competent in skills that he valued and being incompetent in such skills meant being rejected, hurt, blasted with shame. And the more shame I felt, the more I was pulled to be aggressive with others, especially with regard to besting them physically and academically. I had zero awareness of this connection between shame and aggression at the time, it was completely hidden in my shadow.”

– Robert Augustus Masters, Bringing Your Shadow Out Of The Dark

When we act according to our internalized shoulds we only have two options: either we do what is expected of us and breed resentment or we don’t do those things and we feel guilty. That doesn’t seem like a fair choice, does it? Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. You are allowed to not want to do something without feeling guilty or ashamed. You are allowed to have your own boundaries. And you are allowed to say no to things that drain you. That doesn’t make you a bad person. You can use your creative energy to build the life that you want, the life that brings you joy. And you can choose to direct this energy on a channel that is free from resistance.

The problem with shoulds is that they do seem to have a strong claim on the way you behave and act. But the best indicator of it being the right thing to do for you is whether you can do those things with love, without complaining or blaming other people, if you can do it without any feeling of guilt and shame, obligation or duty, whether you can do it because you simply want to.

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