I learnt a very personal and tragic lesson about guilt and shame over Christmas.

I notice it with many of my clients, and in myself sometimes; it’s the tendency to turn guilt into shame. It often happens so quickly we don’t even notice it, and we don’t notice the difference. But they are worlds apart in their impact on our psyche, so understanding them and stopping the reflexive translation matters!

Guilt is basically when we feel bad about something we did, or didn’t do. When we fail to act in accordance with our own values or expectations of behaviour we could feel disappointed in ourselves, but not necessarily guilty. When this perceived failing impacts on others in a negative way we might then feel guilty.

But on the way to experiencing guilt, something strange happens for many people and it happens in a microsecond so we usually don’t see it. An inner critic steps in and changes “I made a mistake”, to “I am a bad person/bad friend/useless mother/weak person” etc.

It’s fairly obvious what the problem is with this. The first statement is essentially an unbiased observation, but the second is subjective and abusive.

On Christmas Eve we went out late to look at the Christmas lights, leaving our little dog in our new home. It was fairly reasonable to expect that he would snooze until we got back (it’s what he usually does), especially that late at night. But he didn’t. He went out for his own adventure, under the front gate which I hadn’t yet blocked off, even though I had noticed the gap was probably big enough for him to get under and that I should fix it soon.

He was hit by a car but somehow came back under the gate and was waiting for us in the driveway, not able to walk any further. We took him to the animal emergency hospital but had to euthanize him on Christmas morning. Apart from being a devastating loss to our family (makes me cry just writing about it), I of course felt to blame. I felt guilty because I made a mistake, but I also noticed how quickly “I should have fixed the gate” turned into “I’m an irresponsible pet owner, if I’d really loved him I would have been more diligent” etc, despite my good record for the past seven years of feeding, watering, walking, immunising, worming, playing tugs-of-war with, and always acquiescing to requests for belly rubs! Our dog and our family paid a big price for the mistake, but to turn my guilt into shame, to essentially erase all the times I had taken good care of him, was abusive.

Guilt often brings with it the opportunity to do something about what happened, to make amends in some way or to apologise. From guilt we can learn, grow, try to improve next time etc. For me I was able to reflect a lot on the idea of impeccability. I thought I had to be more impeccable, and then realised I also needed to be more forgiving of the times when I was impeccably human and therefore a mistake-maker. Also as a family we learnt we needed to Be More Dog (seriously recommend following that link)! We now greet each other with a hug whenever we get home and we wag our tails (OK our butts) when we’re happy (there have been a few attempts at rolling over for belly rubs but that hasn’t really taken off).

Had I got stuck in just feeling like a bad person, I wouldn’t have had any room to learn or grow or find meaning in the event, and our dog’s legacy would have been lost. Because thinking you are worthless and hopeless just kind of leaves you in a miserable heap that you can’t get up from.

And we not only do it to ourselves, we sometimes do it to others. When friends let us down, sometimes we allow them the grace of not being perfect, but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we use the mistake to judge their whole character, and filled with righteous indignation we promptly unlike them on Facebook (or something like that)!

This pattern for shaming is taught to us as children. We all experience shaming to one degree or another when growing up, from parents, peers, teachers etc, and the external pattern becomes an internal pattern.

Can we change it? Absolutely, but probably not overnight. Like many things that have been patterned in our psyche for a long time, learning to stop shaming ourselves takes time, the first step is just to notice it.

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