I want to talk and share some thoughts about guilt, some things I’ve experienced, and things I’ve learned. It is something that we all experience from time to time, to varying degrees, but what does it mean and what do we do about it?
Here is a clip from Brene Brown, just a short clip, from her research. She says that guilt is better than shame. John Bradshaw, and probably many others, say the same thing: guilt says we did something bad and shame says we are bad. With guilt we can do something about a thing, make a change, but with shame, we can’t. We can’t change who we are.
In this clip, she shares briefly about how to notice and make a shift: she gives an example of encouraging a change like “you’re a liar” to “you lied”, and in the example of a child doing homework saying, “I’m stupid” to “I’m confused and having a hard time with an assignment”.
Our self-talk is something we can notice and shift. Here is another brief video about guilt. He talks about toxic guilt and how to deal with it.
I like the idea of turning toward it instead of turning away. Look at it objectively, get some space. This is in line with a model of therapy, really a way of viewing ourselves and others, that has deeply changed my life. Internal family systems, see below for the description from the website:
IFS® is a transformative tool that conceives of every human being as a system of protective and wounded inner parts led by a core Self. We believe the mind is naturally multiple and that is a good thing. Just like members of a family, inner parts are forced from their valuable states into extreme roles within us. Self is in everyone. It can’t be damaged. It knows how to heal.
IFS® is frequently used as an evidence-based psychotherapy, helping people heal by accessing and healing their protective and wounded inner parts. IFS® creates inner and outer connectedness by helping people first access their Self and, from that core, come to understand and heal their parts.
But IFS® is much more than a non-pathologizing evidence-based psychotherapy to be used in a clinical setting. It is also a way of understanding personal and intimate relationships.
- From https://ifs-institute.com/
When a child has a parent who is non-shaming, non-punitive and teaches with love, clarity, and confidence, the child is likely to carry less shame and judgment toward themselves.
When you are a parent, especially a parent of a child who experience(d) addiction, guilt can run your life, that easily can become shame. When guilt is around, you may not want to feel it, so what do you do? How do you ‘not feel it’? You may project, deflect, defend, criticize, or many other things. You may distract yourself using many different strategies and often those can become destructive.
I have carried guilt for a lot of years. My divorce from my children’s father was volatile and left them both with deep wounds that they carried and continue to carry. For many years I blamed myself, though I knew that I was only 1 half of that partnership, it didn’t take away the guilt of watching my children struggle for all these years.
I have carried this guilt like a heavy backpack as if carrying it would change anything. It has not. I have been in counseling myself for many years and it is only until recently that I have gained a deeper understanding of this guilt and its intention for me. I recognize that I acted in a way that I regret and wish I had done differently.
If we pay attention to guilt, it can be helpful. It can show us the areas that we need to focus on. We can hold it up against our values, another thing Brené Brown talks about. We can hold up the guilt, the feelings that we've done something wrong or acted in a way that doesn't resonate well for us. Then we can make some changes if needed.
Just this morning my son shared with me a letter he wrote, that he is considering sending to the parents of a high school friend of his who died when they were 20 years old. He died of an overdose and my son has carried guilt about his death; he felt that he contributed to it because they used together, and he may have even started him using. And now, he has carried survivor's guilt. We both have come to a place where we are doing what we can to use our survival for good; the guilt we carry is that we both are here together, whereas many mothers and their children are not together.
So, guilt is good, it brings us information. It can be like a messenger of sorts, if we pay attention, not try to get away from it, and learn something from it. Get closer, get some understanding, and be open to learning more about your internal messages. In doing so, it changes things inside and outside. It can motivate us to do better and be better. It is just one part of us. Don't let it take over too much.
Guilt is good! Who knew?!