Guest blog: Does shame serve a purpose?

MHA Admin

Mon, 02/05/2024 – 10:04

by Lexie Manion

Some of us feel ashamed for losing a relationship or not meeting a specific goal we set out for – which is particularly acute in the New Year when there is pressure to start over, as if we were lacking or inferior before. It can be a dark place to exist. We seem to forget that our worth is constant and not based on real or perceived failures.

To me, shame is the feeling of guilt magnified.

Feeling ashamed, or shame, is commonly associated with “guilt,” which is defined as “a feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done something wrong, such as causing harm to another person.” In a similar vein, shame, however, is experiencing painful humiliation when we feel our behavior is foolish. To me, shame is the feeling of guilt magnified. The effects of shame can be debilitating. Shame surfaces at times we didn’t even do anything wrong.

Does shame serve a purpose in our healings?

I don’t think that shame always serves a useful purpose. When we make mistakes that lead us to seek resolution properly, guilt serves its purpose; guilt doles out accountability for our offenses. However, shame is a few steps down the road and is banking on our guilt to continue beating us up. Guilt helps us grow and learn so we can do better next time. Shame keeps us stuck in place – a prisoner to the inner turmoil.

A notable time I experienced guilt was when I was coming out of a depressive episode a couple of years ago. I misunderstood a friend and was upset with her. My friend patiently listened to me and explained her perspective compassionately. Upon hearing her side, something clicked within me that helped me see that she was doing her best and did not intend to hurt me. We then resolved. Lending forgiveness to the people who show up in our lives time and time again is important. Most people don’t intend harm. Guilt stirred in my heart and I was able to mend our relationship.

On the other side of this, last year I was dealing with a friend who was crossing boundaries and being inappropriate. It gave my brain whiplash because at the same time that I was working hard to maintain boundaries and keep myself safe, a different friend voiced I was causing them pain. The situations were certainly not opposites of each other; they were nuanced and different. However, it added to my shame because as I was setting boundaries bravely, I was also being accused of lacking them. It was confusing. The boundaries I held in both situations ended our friendships, but the losses reminded me of the strong relationships I still have today. The shame I felt in these situations made me feel as if something was wrong with me. In time, I’ve begun to recognize the internal progress I have made with understanding boundaries, even if others don’t see it. I am learning that some things happen in life beyond our control; we learn that it’s more of a circumstance of the complexity of life than a fault.

Sometimes guilt can be of our own making. I experienced guilt when I didn’t meet my goal of making more meals at home last year. Oftentimes when we make resolutions, we assume we completely failed ourselves if we only did well part of the time. Improving a goal even 5% better than last time is still a positive trajectory, though. I have ordered food out frequently in the past, but in the past few months, I have been finding a better balance between cooking meals at home and getting take-out once or twice a week. This is an ever-evolving balance, but I also recognize that I am a full-time student and health care worker. Showing myself compassion when I do not always have the energy to fulfill my goals has made me happier and healthier. I work to not punish myself, but rather, to find balance. Guilt didn’t serve a purpose because I was, in fact, not doing anything wrong by not meeting a self-imposed goal.

Showing myself compassion when I do not always have the energy to fulfill my goals has made me happier and healthier.

Our gut instincts guide us in life; we know when to walk away so we can reclaim our worth. I’ve felt the shame of the losses in my stomach – to the point it was hard to stand up straight. It’s been studied in psychology that communication between our gut and brain is natural and expected as our gut acts as our second brain. The tenseness and absolute sinking feeling were the worst of it. While it’s a distressing feeling, I am so glad my body is letting it out and alerting me to unresolved inner turmoil. We can only begin to let go when we feel the pain for all that it is, so long as we are properly addressing it introspectively and interpersonally. I’m deeply grateful to feel all my emotions – shame and guilt – today and not deny any; it’s freeing to not bottle things up or push them down.

One of the bravest things I’ve done is continue to show up to my life when shame urges me to run and hide. We can hold the anxiety and discomfort while not taking it as the only truth. Guilt can certainly serve a useful purpose of bettering ourselves, but we don’t need to allow it to fester into shame. Shame tells lies, so we must fight back with the truth that we are doing our best to navigate a world that is not always built for the empaths and the highly sensitive. Sometimes we look through the looking glass and see our greatest weakness, but when we look more closely, we also see our hearts can be utilized as our greatest strength.

As we enter this New Year with a soft gaze on the past and an open stance for what is coming, I hope we can let go of the dull past harm, and feelings of shame attached to it, and embrace our bright future healing. We never have to wait for a new year to find new meaning – every day is a new day; every moment is a new moment to start anew.

Lexie Manion works in health care and is a passionate writer, artist, and mental health advocate. Learn more about Lexie.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog solely belong to the author, and external content does not necessarily reflect the views of Mental Health America.

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