The Need to Be Free
In the right amounts, guilt and shame can serve a healthy purpose, but as with anything else; too much guilt and shame is harmful and dangerous.
Guilt happens when a person feels responsibility or remorse for an offence or wrongdoing either real or imagined. (We’ll come back to the real or imagined in just a bit.) Shame is the painful feeling that arises from the consciousness for having done, participated in or watched something that is dishonorable or improper.
I can still remember my first real encounter with guilt and shame. I was about 12 years old and had checked a few books out of the library. (Yes, I’ve been a nerd for a long time now.) A girl who walked to school with the gang of kids from my neighborhood borrowed one of them to read. By anyone’s standards, this girl was a bully. For some reason though, she never bullied me. When it was time to return the book to the library, I was afraid to ask her for the book back. I had seen her fight and beat up bigger boys; I was not going to get on her bad side.
When the book was way past due, I got a letter from the library asking me to return it. A few weeks went by and I got another letter telling me that I had better get it back. Another week and I was looking at losing library privileges, being fined and in my mind I was going to jail.
My mother could barely feed her seven children; she didn’t have the money to replace books that I had checked out of the library. I sat up wondering and worrying what I would do. I cried and cried. Whenever I saw a police car, I knew they were coming for me. My guilt for not returning the book had turned to shame and I was a prisoner.
It is important to point out that your brain does not know the difference between what is real from what is imagined. The body responds to all of the signals our brain sends as if every alarm is real. Nowadays, I use this to my advantage by meditating a full nap in bed, even when I am sitting upright on a loud airplane.
But back to the library book---My shame started to eat me up and I was afraid to go outside. I went out for school, but then ran home to more threatening letters from the library. Now, to be fair to the nation’s wonderful library system and the brilliant folks who work there, I am certain that these letters were not threatening at all, but back then, my little mind had responded with the necessary guilt, but then the guilt became shame and took over my thinking.
I believe that in the right amount a little guilt and shame are helpful. In fact, we need a little more of it. We should feel shame when seniors are mistreated. We should feel guilt when we take what is not ours. We should be moved to do something when any child is bullied, but when we hold on to the guilt it will become shame and that shame will eat away at your esteem.
I finally did get that book back from that girl. Her entire bully family had tried to read it and she had to fight an even bigger sister to get it back. The book was worn and torn and so that summer, I got a job to pay for the damage.
I worked at the library.
· Shame is like a vampire; it has to be invited in, but once it comes inside, it will take your life away.
· Guilt serves a purpose for the guilty.
· Even if we watch a wrong doing we will feel guilt; if you don’t feel guilty then you have been watching too many.
Love yourself enough to forgive and let go of your shameful past.
Be you, be well, BE FREE
Bertice Berry, PhD.