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Shame and Guilt and Regret…Oh My!

We talk about guilt a lot.  Not only is it one of the most common topics of discussion during therapy, but it’s also a buzzword in our conversations with others.  “I feel so guilty about eating that second piece of cake.”  “My guilty COVID pleasure is binge-watching Sponge Bob Square Pants.”  “My partner makes me feel guilty after I’ve watched the 100th episode of Sponge Bob.”  While we focus on guilt, we forget about shame and regret.  But what do these words actually mean?

A Story…

On a hot summer day in 1973, three 12-year-old boys (Dave, Mike and Steve) are playing baseball in the empty lot at the end of their street.  They’re engrossed in their game—taking turns being batter, pitcher and fielder.  Suddenly, Mike hits a perfect homer.  They watch as the ball takes off, amazed at its distance and speed as it travels out of the lot.  However, their fascination quickly ends with the crash of the ball going through the cranky “old man Smith’s” living room window.  The boys scatter to the wind,  hoping that they won’t get caught.

Thinking they are safe back in Steve’s garage, they’re unaware that the event was seen by another neighbour, who reported them to Mr. Smith.

As the story goes…parents were informed, lectures were given and punishments received.  In this case, the boys had to do a few days of yard work for Mr. Smith to make up for the cost of the broken window.

Years later the boys (now men) meet at a school reunion.  As they reminisce about their childhoods, their memories weave around to that day in the empty lot.  Interestingly, the three men had different reactions to the memory.  Dave didn’t really want to talk about that particular event, and when pressed said that he felt shame that he had run away when the window broke.  Mike, on the other hand, said that he felt guilty–especially now that he had his own home and knew how much work and expense it would be to fix that window.  Steve expressed his regret, as he thinks about those perfect summer days spent weeding Mr. Smith’s garden when he could have been riding his bike in the gravel pit.

Shame, Guilt and Regret—They’re Not the Same Thing

While we often use these words interchangeably, they don’t mean the same thing.

  • When we feel shame, it’s because we believe that we, personally, are bad.
  • When we feel guilt, we recognize that we did something bad.
  • With regret, we wish that we had done something different.

While the differences seem subtle, these words carry a lot of power.  They speak to our core beliefs and resulting self-esteem.

The Concept of Toxic Shame

The most dangerous of these three is the concept of shame because of how it is intrinsically linked to how we see ourselves.  Often starting in childhood, born of the negative comments of parents and others around us on our self-worth and calls into question if we are wanted or even loveable. Being unable to see ourselves as worthy of love is a key core belief related to toxic shame.

That shame can lead us to a place of fear (that our world isn’t safe for us) that can make us extremely susceptible to low self-esteem, an attitude of perfectionism, as well as anxiety and depression.

How do you cope with toxic shame? It is a process, working with a therapist to help reform your core beliefs about yourself. They will help both your adult self and your “inner child”, doing healing work and helping you rebuild and increase your sense of self-esteem.

What to Do With Guilt

Guilt, like so many of the difficult emotions (anger, fear, hate, etc), can be a tremendous teacher. Events that make us feel guilty give us valuable insight into our values and who we are as people. For Mike, for example, he realized he valued the hard work that goes into turning a house into a home and how adulthood brings about the need for proper stewardship of resources.

Even mild forms of guilt (like eating too much cake or binge-watching your favourite TV show, gives insight. It is your subconscious providing breadcrumbs to what you’d like to change about your behaviour in the future.

Regret

While we can have strong regrets about the past, I often think of regret as being somewhat ‘bitter-sweet’.  If only…

The key to looking at regret is to remember the context of the events while looking at ourselves through the eyes of compassion.  Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to judge ourselves from our present position.  It’s important to take some time to think about where we were at the time–how old were we?  What was our developmental level?  What coping strategies and supports did we have access to?  Can we honestly say that we did the best we could at the time?

For both guilt and regret, there may be the option of making amends or a ‘do over’.

Just like Dorothy’s fear of lions and tigers and bears…shining a light on these emotions can help us to make positive changes, lessen their hold on us and perhaps learn something along the way.

And now….

The Precariousness of Balance…Especially During Covid-19

Balance is a topic that has been coming up a lot recently, both personally and with clients. During this time of Covid-19, many of us are trying to figure out how to juggle the reality of daily existence while not knowing how long restrictions and physical distancing will last.

The following post from the archives talks about the concept of balance and how we can apply it to our lives today.

Take care and be safe!

When people find out that I publish a blog post on a regular basis, they often ask where I find ideas to write about. I share that the inspiration can come from lots of different areas. Sometimes it’s a book or article that I’ve read. Sometimes a discussion with a friend, colleague, client or stranger has been the spark. And then there are posts that? I write as a way to wrestle with a topic that I am puzzling with…such as today’s post on balance.

What is Balance?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘balance’ in a number of ways…

  • as a piece of equipment used for measurement
  • physical equilibrium (keeping your balance on a sailboat)
  • the equal space between two opposing elements (junk food vs. exercise)
  • in the context of art, balance is an aesthetically pleasing integration of elements
  • an amount in excess especially on the credit side of a bank account
  • mental or emotional stability.

The ideas of physical equilibrium, space between opposing elements and mental/emotional stability are somewhat helpful, but they don’t quite fit what I’m looking for. They are describing an exact point, but life is made up by a series of ‘points’ or moments.

Balance as a Concept

At some point during the time that a client and I are working together, we will talk about how things may be different when they have finished therapy. What is their picture of life after ‘the change’ In order to discover your view ‘balance’, substitute ‘balanced’ for ‘finished therapy’ or “What is your picture of life after you have achieved a level of balance?” I suspect that each of you will answer differently.

When we recognize that what is an ideal balance for one person, is completely out of balance for someone else, it becomes clear that ‘balance’ as a concept is incredibly individual. Also, what a balanced life looks like at one stage of life no longer fits at a later stage. To complicate things, that sense of being balanced can change from one day to another depending on energy levels, weather, people contact, or an endless bunch of other factors.

Finding Balance…By Paying Attention to the Opposite

I wonder if being able to live a balanced life requires a certain level of self-awareness…knowing not only when we feel balanced, but also being aware of when we feel ‘off-balance’. Feeling ‘off-balance’ is one of the most common reasons that people begin to see a therapist. They may not be sure what is going on, but they don’t feel ‘right’.

Similar to the old saying, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”, maybe we don’t recognize that we are living a balanced life, because everything is ticking along nicely. We are living our lives with few problems. We look for balance only when we become aware of its non-existence. Then we play the game of adding more of this and less of that in an attempt to bring back feelings of equilibrium. How many of us have thought that “I just need more sleep… or less work, or more fun, or less … and life will be better”.

Once we can imagine what a balanced life looks like for us…what we are aspiring to…how do we get there?

Tools for Living a Balanced Life

It appears that the search for a balanced life has been a human activity for a long time. Here are some of the tools that I have found:

  • The 80/20 Rule: The idea behind this tool is that when looking for balance it’s unnecessary to micro-manage things in your life or constantly correct when things feel a bit off-kilter. People use this as a way to balance spending (80% of total income) and saving (20%), or managing food. If 80% of your diet is healthy, don’t worry about the rest.
  • The Buddhist Idea of the Middle Way: The Buddha came to this idea after living a life of extremes. In his youth, he was a wealthy prince and then chose to give it up to live as an ascetic. As a holy man, his practices were so extreme that he almost died. As part of his spiritual journey, he discovered the value of living between the two extremes, or the Middle Way.
  • Everything in Moderation: This tool fits with the Middle Way as the search for balance doesn’t preclude anything–just don’t do too much of it!
  • The One in/One out Rule: This tool helps to maintain balance once it has been reached. Basically, for every new thing you add into your life, something else must leave. This could apply to things, people (in some cases) or activities.
Can We Have It All?

One of the reasons that many people search for a balanced life is their desire to have/or do it all. But is this possible? Maybe, but not at the same time.

Perhaps one piece to the search for a balanced life is that we need to expand the time-frame. Rather than asking if we’re balanced in this week, month or year; maybe we can ask if we are living a balanced life at this stage. Or what if the Merriam-Webster definition is right and balance takes place in the moment, only to shift out of balance so easily? Hmmm….the search continues….

And now…an amazing display of balance–elegant, graceful and inspiring….Enjoy!

 

Let’s Be Kind to Ourselves

Recently, I had dinner with two close friends. As the evening progressed, we talked about how sometimes we struggle with negative voices in our head. These are not the kind of voices that tell us to do harm to ourselves or others, but the ones that undermine our confidence and leading us to feel negatively about who we are and what we do.

If we’re completely honest, I think that all of us could have the same conversation. Sometimes this voice tells us that we’re not good enough. That it’s only a matter of time before everyone else notices how we’re faking it, and the image of ourselves that we’ve built comes crashing down. Maybe the voice tells us that we’re too thin, or not thin enough. If we were only a better partner or friend or did thus and so, then our life would be perfect. Once we learn how to (fill in your own words here), then all will be well. We will have made it!? We believe that our life isn’t perfect, because we are ‘lesser’ than others.

Sometimes we know where ‘the voice’ came from. We recognize the tone or words. In some cases, it belongs to a critical parent or teacher. In others, the voice belongs to a ‘friend’ who really wasn’t a friend. The owner of ‘the voice’ may no longer be in our life, but their messages persist. However, what if they lied?? What if we’re good enough the way we are?

Why are we so mean to ourselves?

we’ve talked about some of the places where our negative messages come from, but why do we continue to believe them?? On a basic level, it’s because we continue the behaviours (even negative ones) that serve us in some way.

At a recent workshop (Mindful Self-Compassion presented by Diane Frederick), Diane showed this clip of an interview with Dr. Paul Gilbert. Dr. Gilbert is a British clinical psychologist, author, and the founder of compassion focused therapy/compassionate mind training.

Gilbert suggests that one of the reasons we don’t give ourselves the benefit of the doubt is because of society’s current fascination with ‘winners’. Dr. Gilbert cites the increase in reality programs where instead of focusing on the winner in which there was usually only one or two we negatively focus on the ‘loser’. Because we’re human, we’re programmed to want to be part of a group. In fact, until fairly recently in our evolution, being excluded from the group meant certain death. No one wants to ‘be voted off the island’!

Another reason that we beat ourselves up is that we want to know where we fit in the hierarchy. As humans, we compare ourselves to others. However, not so long ago, we only compared what we did or had to our close neighbours. Now, through the magic of social media, we can compare to everyone even if the comparisons aren’t realistic or true. ?Not only do we get the negative messages from past people in our lives, but now also from mainstream media; and our self-worth suffers in the process.

A third reason we continue to be mean to ourselves is that we think it helps us to succeed. If we didn’t have that negative inner voice, we might give in to our baser instincts eat whatever we want, spend every night devouring the latest Netflix series, or not giving 110% at work. How are we to get ahead in life if we don’t keep trying to improve ourselves?? We don’t want to fail.

Why Should We Care?

Simply put, when we’re mean to ourselves, we are hurting ourselves. We are both the perpetrator and victim. Our mental health suffers.

Anxiety, depression, stress, rumination (negative, repeating thoughts), perfectionism, fear of failure and shame are the outcomes of a habit of ?beating ourselves up?…and we can choose to do something different!

How Do We Stop?

Be mindful of your inner life. We do this by checking in with ourselves throughout the day especially if you notice physical symptoms (headache, tense muscles or stomach issues). Our bodies are a wonderful barometer of what our mind is doing.

Argue with that inner voice. Through mindfulness, once you become aware of how you are being mean to yourself, argue with that voice. One Cognitive Behavioural Therapy method is to question the validity of our negative thoughts. A good way to do this is in writing. Write down the negative statement, then beside or underneath it, list a rebuttal. Keep going until ‘you’ win the argument. At the same time, rather than using an ‘I’ statement, move the statement into the third person (i.e. using your first name). This provides distance and makes it less personal.

Imagine that the voice is talking to your best friend or other loved one. Would you say those things to them? You can also imagine yourself as a small child that you are taking care of.

Download and use ‘Ditty?‘. This app lets you record a negative statement and then pick a funny way to play it back. It’s hard to take a mean message seriously when it’s being said to the soundtrack for ‘the chicken dance’!

Focus on the positive. Some people love to use affirmations, others not so much. If positive affirmations work for you, go for it.

Invite the voice in for tea. If arguing with your inner critic doesn’t work, try looking at it with compassion. Sometimes we spend a lot of energy fighting against something. However, once we accept what we don’t like it loses its power.

Life is sometimes difficult and the world can be a scary place. We need to be kind to others and to ourselves?.

And now, this beautiful song has become one of my new favourites! Enjoy!