Like many of you I received lots of disapproving looks and comments as a child that taught me to feel guilt and shame about what I did or who I was. And the honest truth is, until I learned what guilt and shame are and how they work, I did the very same thing to my children – because guilt and shame are learned – and we pass on what we learned, until we learn better.
Guilt and shame are used to make us conform, to make us mind, obey and behave according to other people’s and the cultures beliefs or agenda. It’s generational and cultural. Which is to say that as times change or from one culture to another, what is considered something to be guilty or ashamed about changes, making guilt and shame nothing more than an OPINION of the person, era or society. NOT A FACT or TRUTH about you or me, or my children or yours or ANYONE for that matter.
Further it is important to know that the guilting and shaming that is off-loaded onto us through another’s OPINION, comes from the FRIGHTENED parts of themselves. It comes from their FEAR created through their own experience of guilt and shame where they learned that if they did not conform or obey, they would suffer painful disapproval, rejection, abandonment, humiliation or even punishment. The consequences passed down from generation to generation and culture to culture to enforce acquiescence and conformity.
Guilt or shame are OPINIONS lobbed at us from someone else’s FEAR and depending on what we believe about ourselves, they either stick or they don’t.
When I was a kid I preferred cart-wheeling and somersaulting to walking. I would cartwheel down the lane to school in the mornings and somersaulting was always the best way to get from one side my bedroom to the other. One summer afternoon when I was 6 I was sitting on the floor of my grandmother’s living room with my cousins and brothers, and what I wanted was behind me.
Obvious solution…a backward somersault!
Just as I flipped my legs up behind my head and my summer dress fell over my face my grandmother came into the room and said “Jodi shame on you. Pull that dress back down. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” And my thought was “Are you kidding? That backward somersault was the best!”
I felt absolutely no guilt or shame.
Years later when I was 12, my two girl cousins and I decided to go skinny dipping down at the lake in the dark while everyone else was up at the campfire. I put my bathing suit on the back of the boat and we had a grand time swimming free of our suits! But when I went to get my swimsuit, it was gone. It had fallen off the back of the boat into the water and it was too dark to find my bright pink halter tank swimsuit. However the next morning someone else had found it and it was sitting in plain sight on the dock. When this was discovered there were lots of questions and although no one said “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Their looks said it.
I felt total guilt and shame.
The difference between my 6 year old experience and my 12 year old experience was that I learned to be self-conscious of my body. The guilt and shame did not stick when I was 6 because I did not have a belief that I should be ashamed of showing my underpants to everyone, so there was nothing for the guilt and shame to adhere to.
It just fell to the ground.
However by 12 I had taken on many generational and cultural beliefs about my body that would cause the look of guilt and shame to land squarely and stick to me solidly.
I carried that guilt and shame for many years.
When I began to change the beliefs about my body, these old adhesions of guilt and shame fell away. There were no longer any matching beliefs that I should be ashamed of my body or guilty of what I do with it, for the shame and guilt to stick to. I saw that it was other’s OPINIONS that I should be guilty or should be ashamed. And once I no longer believed the same, I just simply could no longer go along with their OPINION. Not even if I wanted to out of love or respect for the person.
There simply was no longer anything in me to make the guilt or shame stick.
Last summer at the lake my daughter and her girlfriends disappeared from the campfire. After a while I went to check on them. Down at the lake I heard them splashing and having fun. The next morning my daughter gleefully shared with me they’d been skinny dipping – no guilt and no shame – just exuberant joy!
The chain of generational body guilt and shame had been broken.
I had learned better so I was able to side step the guilting and body shaming, and had passed on better to my daughter. I didn’t teach her to feel guilty or be ashamed of her body. I taught her to revere it, be proud and in charge of it.
Comments and looks were made by older family members about the skinny dipping adventure and it was pure delight to see the comments have nowhere to land and fall swiftly to the ground. Completely unacknowledged.
As moms, particularly moms of teenagers we don’t always get every victory, but I’m taking this one!
And Now to Support You…
What guilt or shame are you hanging onto?
What are you believing about yourself that makes it stick?
Can you look back and see how the guilt and shame you took on was the OPINION of someone who had learned it from someone, who had learned it from someone, the culture or the era, and that it was never yours to begin with?
Can you see how that person’s OPINION came from their own FEARS, experiences and the FRIGHTENED part of themselves?
Can you see, as I later did with my grandmother’s shame admonishment, that it was done out of love and protection? That the person who shamed you had suffered consequences they wanted to protect or spare you from?
What if it’s yourself you can’t forgive for the things you feel guilty or ashamed about?
Forgiveness is in order. And loads of compassion. For who you were then, is not who you are now. And the fact is, you do what you know how to do and…as the late, great Maya Angelou said “When you know better, you do better.”
And what you know better now is that…
You did then what you knew how or what to do
You know differently now
You know that without self compassion and forgiveness you’re continuing your own guilt and shame suffering and keeping yourself stuck
You know that sometimes in life there is not a better choice, or a right and wrong choice, there is only the lesser of two difficult choices and you can’t punish yourself for having to make the choice
You know that carrying guilt and shame is debilitating – to your life, health, relationships, success and happiness
You know that the time has come to heal this