In her beautiful poem, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” How about you? Do you want to leave it to chance, sort of blowing in the wind like a tumbleweed? Or, do you want to create a life that is about you and chock full of things that are meaningful, fulfilling and joyful?
Would you be surprised to learn that guilt and shame are not the same? They are, indeed, different. And, the importance of understanding that difference enables us to appropriately address and deal with “guilty” thoughts and feelings and to reject often undeserved “shame” messages.
When we act badly, in opposition to our values, it may cause us to have a guilty conscience. Shame, on the other hand, is a deeply held belief that we are an unworthy person. When a child is told, “You are such a bad girl/boy!” it can become a shaming identity.
When we feel guilty, we often want to reject, deny or defend our actions, “acting out” to distract attention from or excuse our bad behavior. Children can experience guilt as early as three to six years old. An example would be telling a lie about stealing a cookie.
The seeds of shame may also begin in childhood, often emanating from childhood experiences of neglect, abandonment, abuse, humiliation or messages of disrespect.
- We feel psychologically uncomfortable about something we said or did that is wrong or conflicts with our values.
- A guilty conscience motivates us to be accountable, to make amends, to learn and change.
- We may seek forgiveness from a person we offended in order to repair and heal the relationship.
Selfishness, gossip or unfairness at someone’s expense provokes guilt if we value and respect the rights and welfare of others.
- Feeling psychologically uncomfortable about our conduct measured against unrealistic standards or expectations.
- Feeling guilty or responsible for someone else’s bad or rude behavior (a friend or family member).
- Feeling guilty for being happy or alive when others are ill, suffering or grieving.
- A subjective internalized feeling and belief of being a worthless person; fundamentally flawed.
- A humiliating belief that others see us in the same negative way as we think of ourselves.
- Treatment of individuals like objects, without regard for human dignity, obliterates one’s sense of self-respect or worth.
- Degrading, unjust or cruel treatment by others invokes humiliation and shame.
- Association with and proximity to another’s cruel or disgusting behavior, an environment or circumstance may cause a shame identity.
Understanding the difference between guilt and shame is important. We have a choice to change and also to repair damage caused by our guilt-producing behavior
Shame is more complex. It can become part of one’s identify – a belief that one is a fundamentally flawed or unworthy person. Children who are shamed can be robbed of their own identity. Adults may be shamed when their dignity is stripped away or when they engage in morally offensive, cruel or illegal conduct. Redeeming one’s dignity is much more difficult than simply changing bad behavior.
Most of us have experienced guilt or shame at some point in our lives. What about you? I Certainly have. My soon-to-be-released book will include more about these and other challenging issues. If this information resonates with you, please read my other blogs at ToughTalkCoach.com.
Author-Researcher Brené Brown’s abiding interest in the subject of “trust” was heightened by an experience her daughter Ellen had at school when a friend betrayed her trust.
Speaking at a UCLA-based Oprah Winfrey Super Soul Session, Brown used a marble jar positive behavior tool as a measure of how much we trust the people in our lives.
Research changed Brené’s ongoing assumption that trust cannot be built around small moments in our lives. “It is very clear,” she said, “trust is built in very small moments.” Trust is not an event; it collects/develops over time like marbles in a jar.
For example: When asked, one woman said, “Yeah, I really trust my boss. She even asked me how my mom’s chemotherapy was going.” One important marble in the trust relationship. Also, people who showed up for the funeral of other people’s relatives also earned a trust marble.
Another huge marble jar moment for people: “I trust him because he’ll ask for help when he needs it.” That is to say, I trust him because he trusts me enough to be vulnerable. Brown knows that we are much better at giving help than asking for it because we are reluctant to be vulnerable with another person.
Brown decided to create her own definition of what trust is and the result is BRAVING. “When we trust, we are ‘BRAVING’ connection with someone.”
Here is an abbreviated version of what BRAVING means. For her full definition, you may watch the video in its entirety.
Boundaries – “I trust you if you are clear about each of our boundaries and you respect them. There is no trust without boundaries.”
Reliability –“I can only trust you if you do what you say you are going to do over and over and over again. In our working life we have to be very clear about our limitations so we don’t over commit and come up short. In our personal life, it means the same thing.”
Accountability – “I can only trust you if, when you make a mistake you are willing to own it, apologize for it, and make amends.”
Vault – “What I share with you, you will hold in confidence. What you share with me I will hold in confidence. This must be reciprocal.”
Integrity – “I cannot be in a trusting relationship with you if you do not act from a place of integrity, and encourage me to do the same.”
In non judgment – “I can fall apart and ask for help and be in struggle without being judged by you. And you can fall apart and be in struggle without being judged by me.”
Generosity – “Our relationship is a trusting relationship only if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions and behaviors and then check in with me.”
Brown believes that we cannot talk about trust if we generalize. Understanding trust gives us very specific words to say instead of using this huge word that has tons of weight and value around it.
One of the biggest causalities with heartbreak, disappointment and failure in our struggle is not just the loss of trust with other people but also the loss of trust of ourselves.
When something hard happens in our lives the first thing we often say is “I can’t trust myself. I was so stupid.” This BRAVING acronym works for self-trust too.
What Brown invites us to think about when we think about trust is – “If your own marble jar is not full, if you can’t count on yourself, you can’t ask other people to give you what you don’t have.” We have to start with self-trust. The poet Maya Angelou said, “I don’t trust people who don’t love themselves, but say I love you.”
If you find yourself in struggle with trust, first examine your own marble jar. We can’t ask others to give to us something that we do not believe we are worthy of receiving. You will know you are worthy of receiving trust when you trust yourself above everyone else.
It’s startling to experience a sudden burst of intense emotion. It often feels like anger! Where did it come from? What’s it about?
It could be from unfairness, injustice or humiliation — all justified causes of anger. However, anger is often a “secondary” emotion that accompanies hurt or fear since we frequently experience more than one emotion at a time.
The amygdala in our brain helps us to survive by managing many automatic functions in our body. It remembers our experiences and assesses threats, physical and emotional. We all have experienced “triggers” — sudden intense feelings that seem to come from nowhere. Yep, that’s the amygdala working.
Here are a few examples of “triggering” experiences. I’m sure you can recall many of your own.
- A friend fails to keep an agreement, a promise or a secret.
- A child runs into the street after a ball without seeing a car coming.
- A family member forgets to include you in the picture of a family celebration.
- Your brother criticizes and belittles your daughter or spouse.
Any of these situations may cause us to feel hurt, angry or afraid. However, anger is often the first emotion we experience without recognizing the underlying feelings and, when triggered, our impulsive reactions often seem angry. This often provokes us to say or do things we later regret.
When we react without thinking we may cause emotional harm to the relationship. Better to choose our reply once we understand the situation. This is exactly why the first rule of managing anger is to stop and think before taking action. It’s not what happens that matters so much. It’s how you handle it, and what it means to you, that matters most.
I know. Easier said than done! Intense emotions usually interfere initially with our ability to think clearly. Take time to differentiate between your feelings. Anger is different than fear. Fear is different than hurt. Trust me, it is possible, and necessary to regulate your behavior so you don’t act in ways that you will later regret. Just because you feel hurt or angry, you may not kick the cat or lash out at the policeman.
Triggered? Here’s help:
- Take several slow, deep breaths! Count to 10!
- Then, identify your feelings. General categories are: mad, sad, glad, afraid. If you are unclear about your emotions, ask yourself, “Is there a mad part about what happened? Is there a hurt or scared part? Because we often experience more than one feeling at a time, this will help you decide how to respond.
- Don’t assume you know the other person’s intentions or meaning. Be willing to engage to understand what happened. State what’s true for you along with the impact or meaning. “It seems to me that…” Then, state the impact or meaning for you. “I am disappointed, surprised, worried, hurt that…” Then, listen to understand the person’s meaning.
- Sometimes, misunderstandings and mistakes occur that can be quickly cleared up and dismissed. Start by giving the person the benefit of the doubt.
- When intense feelings linger, address the matter directly — sooner rather than later. When we feel vulnerable we may fear that the person will not recognize or acknowledge how their behavior affected us. When we avoid understanding and resolving issues, we diminish and disrespect the relationship.
- Trust that the strength of the relationship will allow for repair and recovery from mistakes and poor choices. When issues, large or small, are avoided, the relationship is compromised, thus causing distance that erodes affection, respect and trust.
- If you continue to feel upset about a situation 24 hours later, know that it will not simply evaporate. It will linger and fester, contaminating the relationship.
- If the person is important to you, take time to understand the transgression. Decide what you want to have happen and initiate contact. To have an argument? To prove you are right? To request or make an apology? To repair and recover? Let that decision guide your behavior. How you respond will be based on your values and principles.
Do not rely on someone else’s bad behavior as an excuse to be crabby, to rage or ruin your day. And, certainly, don’t allow another person’s bad behavior to control you.
The good news is that — with very few exceptions — willing attitudes and necessary skills can avoid or repair difficult interactions. Carpe diem!
Have you ever been on the losing end of nepotism? Or lost a position or promotion, that you believe you have earned, to a less-qualified person or co-worker?
Has a friend or professional colleague manipulated or lied publicly about you or something that caused you to feel humiliated or ridiculed?
If so, I expect that your immediate emotion was anger: a predictable and appropriate response to injustice or unfairness. Anger is triggered when you believe you have been wronged.
When things are not fair, we feel justifiably angry, vulnerable or maybe powerless. The intensity of our emotions and responses are dictated by the significance of the situation or the relationship. So, how can we deal with our anger in unfair situations?
When we have no control over an unjust situation or another person’s behavior, it’s not what happens that is key, it’s how we handle ourselves and what the situation means to us that is most important.
- When life is unfair, perspective can help. Consider this: How important is this situation to you on a scale of one to 10? (Ten is the highest.)
- If the situation ranks as a 1, 2 or 3 (relatively insignificant), you may decide to let it go, unless the behavior is a recurring pattern.
- If the situation is a 7 or 8 (a big deal) as in the examples above, the injustice has impacted you adversely.
The workplace example describes a situation that is a fait acomplis, finished, done! We feel powerless. Anger, aggravation or resentment are completely normal when a decision is unjust, especially when we are surprised or caught off-guard. We may react with fight, flight or freeze behavior before we can even think.
Assuming that whatever has happened has had a significant impact on you, your career or reputation, it’s important to:
- Objectively assess the situation; make no assumptions.
- Understand how the situation impacts you, personally.
- Ask yourself: What exactly is the unfair or unjust aspect of the situation? This will help you to respond effectively.
- Determine the specific outcome or remedy you desire, even though none may be available or even seem possible.
- Feel and express your emotions by talking with a few appropriate people, writing about the situation, or writing letters, but not sending them, to the offending individuals. It’s important to avoid destructive acting out!
- If you have reacted impulsively or inflicted damage of some kind, repair or make necessary apologies, sooner rather than later.
The manipulation example above involves a personal relationship that will need to be addressed. Being wronged in this way is more complicated and more difficult to manage.
Being a true victim of injustice is one of the most difficult events to handle because we are rarely able to change the outcome. We are stuck and have essentially only two choices: be crushed or become strong and learn. My advice: don’t suffer for nothing; learn something.
With the first, we can continue to invest emotionally in our anger, rage and resentment, making our lives miserable. By taking the second road, we process our thoughts and feelings, coming to terms with the reality of a horrible situation and deciding to move through and, ultimately, release the anger so we don’t perpetuate the torment. Which will you choose?
Of course, we most likely will never forget the experience and the recovery process takes time. Usually the most helpful choice is to learn how to deal with life’s unfairness and manage our anger constructively. That way, we have the freedom not to be defined or destroyed by something over which we have no control.
Be on the lookout for “Angry! When It’s Personal” where I will address how to handle the hidden emotions that ignite anger.