A few weeks ago, while discussing some of our experiences, one of my sons commented that he didn’t think I had ever done anything seriously wrong. Rather than accept the compliment, I denied it and gave him a couple of examples of mistakes I had made in the past. My son merely laughed those off as insignificant. But, of course, I couldn’t (or at least wouldn’t) relate to him some of my much darker secrets. Why? Because I am too ashamed to admit those publicly.
The title of this post is Shedding Our Shame, not True Confessions, so if you are hoping to learn of my deepest secrets, get over it. It’s not going to happen. But that discussion with my son, as well as reading Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated,[i] got me thinking about how guilt and shame can either help us or harm us.
Tara Westover had an interesting childhood, to say the least. She was psychologically and sometimes physically abused by her parents and siblings. She ultimately walked away from them, but felt guilty about that, even though she believed she was justified in doing so because of the abuse. After many years of struggling with the guilt from abandoning her parents, she concluded:
“But vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people. I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances, without weighing his [her father’s] sins against mine. Without thinking of my father at all. I learned to accept my decision for my own sake, because of me, not because of him. Because I needed it, not because he deserved it.”
Like forgiveness, then, shedding ourselves of guilt is much more important for our own wellbeing than the wellbeing of the person we harmed.
What causes guilt or shame in us? Religion teaches us that we should feel guilt (remorse) when we sin because we have disappointed God. Perhaps this is how Red felt in The Shawshank Redemption,[ii] as he relates his feelings about the crime he committed 40 years ago:
But I think Red felt his guilt for reasons other than just displeasing God. I feel the most-guilty when my actions or inactions have hurt someone else. God, for me, is not always a huge part of it.
Sometimes our actions can hurt others even though we had no intention of doing so. Many years ago, I had a friend who, on a business trip, intentionally ran a stop sign because he was late for a meeting with a client.
He did not see the car coming the other way.
The impact of the crash caused a new-born to be thrown from the car, killing her instantly. Her parents were bringing their brand-new baby home from the hospital for the first time. Meeting with my friend after that accident was gut-wrenching. I witnessed first-hand pain, torment, suffering, grief, and guilt all rolled into one. The family of the infant was remarkably understanding, holding no grudges. But I didn’t know how my friend could ever get over that. I’m not sure I ever could. Perhaps Ron Kovic, in the film about his life, Born on the Fourth of July[iii] felt similarly:
“War is hell,” as General Patton once said, and bad things, even unintentional ones, regularly happen in war. But how would we feel if we chose one course of action because of political or financial implications and that course led to the death of a child? That is what Chief Martin Brody had to live with in Jaws:[iv]
We sometimes use guilt and shame interchangeably, but I like the difference research professor, Dr. Brené Brown, makes:
“I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.
“I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
“I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”
Or as Christian theologian, Lewis B. Smedes, succinctly summarizes it, “We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for who we are.”
The ending of Saving Private Ryan[v] shows us how guilt can direct our lives. In this scene, Ryan, now an old man, visits the grave of one of the men who gave his life so Ryan could live:
Using the motivation of survivor’s guilt, Ryan lived the best life he could. That guilt helped him be a better man. But we shouldn’t have to experience guilt every day for the rest of our lives. We need to learn from our mistakes, make a course correction, if necessary, and move on.
Contrast the scene from Saving Private Ryan with this scene from The Breakfast Club,[vi] where Andrew Clark feels the shame heaped upon him by his dad about the importance of winning, and turns those feelings of inadequacy into destructive actions to himself and others:
Admittedly, I am not a trained therapist, but from my experience, we need to be careful how we treat others, so we don’t push the remorse someone feels from making a mistake into shame for being a flawed person. As parents, do we correct the errors our children make? Or do we tell them they are bad? When we bully another person, aren’t we telling them that they are no good? As teachers (formal or otherwise), do we label our students in such a way that we tell them they are just plain dumb? As Christians, are we so obsessed with being a sinner, the need for strict obedience to every commandment, and our hopeless plight if we fail to accept the Savior, that we shame our fellow congregants?
Perhaps more importantly, what do we tell ourselves about ourselves? The more we tell ourselves how wretched we are, the more we believe it. And that belief will almost always become our reality. And a reality of shame can only lead to destructive behavior, sometimes even suicide.
Author Sue Thoele said, “I believe one of our souls’ major purposes is to know, love, and express our authentic selves. To live the life and be the person we were created to be. However, our true selves only emerge when it’s safe to do so. Self-condemnation, shame, and guilt send your true nature into hiding. It’s only in the safety of gentle curiosity, encouragement, and self-love that your soul can bloom as it was created to do.”
Let’s help create for others that safe place where a person can correct mistakes along the way but where their true, beautiful selves are allowed to emerge and develop.
And let’s do the same for ourselves. Regardless of what we have done or failed to do, each of us is a person of worth. Despite our past, each of us can have a bright future if we will only shed our shame.
[i] Educated, by Tara Westover, Random House, copyright 2018
[ii]The Shawshank Redemption
- Production Company: Castlerock Entertainment
- Director: Frank Darabont
- Screenwriter: Frank Darabont (based on a short story by Stephen King)
- Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, and Bob Gunton
- Release date: October 14, 1994
[iii] Born on the Fourth of July
- Production Company: Ixtlan
- Director: Oliver Stone
- Screenwriter: Oliver Stone (based on the book by Ron Kovic)
- Starring: Tom Cruise, Raymond J. Barry, and Caroline Kava
- Release date: January 5, 1990
- Production Companies: Zanuck/Brown Productions and Universal Pictures
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Screenwriters: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
- Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss
- Release date: June 20, 1975
[v] Saving Private Ryan
- Production Companies: DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures, and Amblin Entertainment
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Screenwriter: Robert Rodat
- Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and Tom Sizemore
- Release date: July 24, 1998
[vi] The Breakfast Club
- Production Companies: Universal Pictures, A&M Films, Channel Productions
- Director: John Hughes
- Screenwriter: John Hughes
- Starring: Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, and Molly Ringwald
- Release date: February 15, 1985