Recognizing and overcoming guilt and shame

I have heard a lot in my life about guilt and about shame. These two negative emotions have very different impacts on life and on behavior, and I want to share some of what I have learned, through study, self-reflection, careful thought, and the love of those closest to me. This is how I learned to identify them and put them behind me, and I hope it helps you to do the same, so you can take back your life and live it more fully.

Most simply, guilt is something you feel that makes you regret a previous behavior and want to make amends, and to do better next time, too. Shame is an ouroboros, feeding on itself, going nowhere, accomplishing nothing useful, and providing no help. It is not even fuel to be burned, like anger (properly managed) can be.

Shame ruins everything you allow it to touch; there is no upside to it. It causes self-destructive behavior built on denial and pain. Shame has no opposite to balance it out; the only thing I have found that can counter it at all is a combination of honesty and love. Honesty with yourself, harsh honesty if needed, to see what you really did that makes you feel this way. You may be surprised that it doesn’t hold up as you thought it did. This makes it easier to move on.

Of course, sometimes it truly is as bad as you feared, but when you admit that to yourself first, you take away most of its power at once. Denial is a heavy blanket that weighs you down everywhere you go; it keeps you from breathing properly, from acting effectively, and from seeing what is really around you, even right in front of your face. Allow yourself to stare that pain down and feel it for a moment, then allow yourself to step away without breaking eye contact.

Shame cannot survive being spoken. Fears, too, often lose their power when you can put a name to them and call them out.

Face up to your deepest fears, your worst shame, and you lift the blanket of denial. Like coming up for air, you will immediately feel lighter, even if the shock of that air and that brightness may overwhelm you at first. To carry this metaphor to fruition, this also lets you move freely again. It can feel very different, suddenly having the ability to reach out and say or do something that felt unattainable before. But when you do this, you immediately take back some of the power to help yourself and to change what you’ve brought to be.

After honesty comes love.

Part of shame’s power to imprison your mind and heart is that it wields fear like a physical weapon. Fear hurts, and you can shy away from its touch, even for years. Many have this ingrained in them. But I have only found two things that can beat back fear. One is courage: not the absence of fear, but the determination to act from knowing that something else is more important. Sometimes clear thinking can help you reach this point, when you realize something new, or when someone else helps open your eyes to a truth you had overlooked.

But even more powerful and more sweeping is love. Love can wash fear away like the surf of a rising tide. This does not always happen automatically. Sometimes you have to burn away the denial with that lens of honesty before you can find the love beneath it, for denial can hide even that, when you give it enough power over enough time. But love unveiled can be your strongest defense and your greatest tool.

Love for another can make you choose to risk your life, or to give up something valuable, if you can help them. It can help you to overcome your lifelong shyness or your fear of embarrassment to step up and say a kind word to someone in need, or to someone in pain. This can be the protective love of a parent for a child, or a friend for another, or the selfless love of anyone for a stranger. It is all the same power, and it can inspire awe and help you to master any fear you have, as long as you can feel it openly.

Honesty can help you to see someone you love who is hurting, and to recognize that your love can help that person. This person can be someone with whom you are close, or someone distant to whom you want to reach out, or a total stranger you encounter seemingly by chance. It can even be yourself. Be honest, first, and then allow yourself to love someone – someone else, or your own being. No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.

If you have lived with shame, you are almost certainly telling yourself lies. Maybe someone else put them there in the beginning, and whether you hear their voice in your head and your heart, or whether you hear your own, shame does nothing but erode everything you are that matters. It saps your energy, it keeps you cold and still and quiet, and it robs you of your very life, one inch and one drop at a time. It serves nothing but pain and fear.

Guilt over actions means you see that you can do better. THAT is a fueling emotion that you can use to reach out and help someone. Even yourself! If you committed some offense that no one has even discovered yet, but you feel guilty about it, you can make yourself feel better if you take action to make it right, and right now. If you wronged another, honesty and love are still your best tools to set things right again. Speak the truth with humility and show that person some love. No, it may not always be possible to make things truly right, but you only have a chance to do better if you take action.

Don’t wait. Do it now. Look inside, talk with someone you trust, or talk with yourself in the mirror. But be honest. Then be kind. Even if you think you don’t know kindness, then you already know everything else that hurts. Say something that you’ve never heard anyone say. See how it makes you feel. If it surprises you and lifts your heart, start with that. You may have just discovered kindness on your own. And when you share that with the world, honestly, you will quickly find that kindness attracts more kindness, and you will learn even faster how it feels, and how to cultivate it everywhere you can. Then you’re making yourself and your world a better place.

Every day.

Soldiers as Guardians… and more importantly, as Humans

Soldiers are celebrated as heroes, as well they should be, putting their lives on the line to defend what they believe in. But problems arise when people can no longer believe in anything real. Artificial borders, political affiliations, religious zealotry… these are ideas that are meant to divide humans from each other, and they do so quite effectively.

I heard something tonight that got me thinking more than ever about this issue. Whether fictional or not, the very concept of a “NQK” (No Questions Kill) mission is troublesome on the face of it. The supremely destructive act of taking a life, while sometimes necessary for the greater good, should never be undertaken lightly, nor blindly. Well-trained soldiers with understanding from an informed populace make the BEST soldiers, because they understand the reasons behind their orders, and so can follow them with conviction when right, or know to question them when wrong.

The problem with “blind loyalty” is right there in the name: it is BLIND. And of course, “there is none so blind as one who will not see.” If someone refuses to consider new ideas, that person has stopped learning and indeed has stopped thinking. Confirmation bias is a widely-known psychological phenomenon to which no one is immune; the only way to avoid it is by constantly questioning one’s own reasoning and conclusions. Sound reasoning can stand up to this. However, rationalizing what we already want to believe is no way to live, and it is the antithesis of truth.

Regarding leadership, some people have been shown to thrive with firm guidance, but most people can do so much more with encouragement, education, and opportunity than with slavish obedience. There are people who are so scarred, mentally and emotionally, that they need structure imposed upon them to function at all, but “breaking” people so they can become better at following orders still requires BREAKING in the first place. If breaking the spirit of horses is innately cruel (since they have a right to life), then breaking the spirit of humans is just as cruel (since they have a right to life, too). There is no difference unless we close our eyes and cry dogma, and that difference is artificial and deadly to all life.

With compartmentalized knowledge and secret missions, police become simple tools of the person or group in power, and military soldiers become no more than pawns in power struggles, and not the guardians of their people that they should be. Even our so-called National Guard simply protects financial interests in other countries much of the time. Soldiers should be entrusted with the protection of their people, and the full understanding of what and whom they are protecting, and why.

People with strong tendencies are easy to steer. This is not necessarily the same as passion. Passion for something is a choice you make, something you are happy to pursue. Drives, however, can compel you to take actions, good or bad. These can stem from healthy convictions or from poorly-understood emotional obsessions. The detective who never misses a clue at the crime scene may still feel compulsions that capture his attention in daily life, even to the point of letting him walk right into danger unawares. The officer or agent who remains cool in the face of most criminal activity may still lose his self-control in the presence of someone who did what was done to him in his youth. If it made him feel powerless and victimized years ago, he may overreact to the newest villain and even lose sight of his training, perhaps even compromising the prosecution against the new monster before him. Mature children of manipulative parents who outgrow the oppressive grip under which they were raised, still may find the old reactions coming back years later, even after just a phone call with a parent or someone who reminds them of that time.

All of this speaks to why blind obedience is just as dangerous for soldiers and the people they would protect, because blind followers can be used like tools if you know how to grip their handles; sailed like winds on the sea if you know which direction they blow and how to tack. Rich metaphors for certain, but the same is true for those who train people too narrowly.

Soldiers who are best suited to protect themselves, their families, and their homelands, are well-rounded, intelligent people who understand their own psychology as well as that of their opponents. Enemies of humanity abound, but they can only climb to power and work from within if they first train their guardians not to look inward. True heroes may or may not be patriots, but if you believe that this is the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, then the Free and the Brave must be free to question their leaders and brave enough to do so. Everyone is wrong sometimes. The wisest among us understand this, value honest feedback, admit our own mistakes and learn from them, to grow wiser and stronger over time. This is true leadership. The stubborn and the strong may defeat a person, a group, or a nation, but they will never be handed victory without a fight by anyone who knows who they are but questions everything honestly, to ensure that they stay true.

Any path through the chaos of life is never easy, and we must always remain vigilant to know upon what ground we stand, and which way we are facing as we move across each terrain that we encounter. Stop and rest, recover your strength, look inward at yourself and at those around you, and you will see which way to go after a time. Life is like travel by foot. Sometimes there will be fog all around; sometimes visibility is clear for miles. Sometimes everything seems uphill, but there is always a balance to that if you just keep going. I read once, “If you’re going through hell… KEEP GOING!” Anywhere you stop and give up, you will remain. Even if you settle in a fertile valley by a river, if you do not pay attention and tend to the land around you, you will stagnate and start to decay.

Only through challenge can we grow stronger. The person whose injuries are healing but who will not test his muscles because they still hurt, will lose what muscle he had, and will continue to weaken. The person who never pushes the boundaries never learns what she can do. The child who never encounters bacteria or dirt may never develop the immunity to carry him through the dangers of adult life. The adult who stops questioning her values stops understanding them and shrivels into a creature of blind habit. The elder whose habits and traditions have never been challenged collapses upon himself and may wonder one day what all he has missed by never looking the other way. Or he may never wonder at all, and lose even the benefits of hindsight and the wisdom of reflection.

Struggle, in modest doses, makes us stronger. It makes us wiser, as we learn where we thrive as well as what always hurts more than it helps. It broadens our horizons whenever we take up something new, even for a day, a year, a decade. Exercise your body when and where you can. Be careful, but take risks. Push a little every chance you get, then reflect on how it made you feel. Even fear cannot rule us when we understand it and call it by name. Everything you learn makes you stronger. Insight is a tool at least as powerful as a strong back. Experience opens more doors than you can count. “New” may be daunting, but growth can be inspiring. The endorphins people talk about when they exercise are from pushing themselves in the right ways and the right amounts. People can feel the same invigorating release of energy from mental accomplishments and emotional milestones.

Work. Push. Think. Learn. Reflect. Discuss. Understand. Find peace in motion and growth in sharing, whether you connect with other people or with everything else around you even while seemingly alone. There is always something. No part of this planet is truly empty. And if you are there, it can be a rich place indeed.