This is the text of the homily I presented at church one week ago.
Shame. Blame. Guilt. These are three of the most debilitating emotions in the human experience. They hold us back from being our best, they rob us of joy, they separate us from the rest of the world, and they rob the world of the gifts we have and are not sharing.
Let’s start with some definitions here, so we can all understand exactly how I am going to be using these words today. According to Wikipedia (bear with me, I will summarize in a moment), “Shame is a painful, social emotion that can be seen as resulting “…from comparison of the self’s action with the self’s standards…” but which may equally stem from comparison of the self’s state of being with the ideal social context’s standard. Thus, shame may stem from volitional action or simply self-regard; no action by the shamed being is required: simply existing is enough.” They define blame as “the act of censuring, holding responsible, making negative statements about an individual or group that their action or actions are socially or morally irresponsible, the opposite of praise. ” Finally shame’s brother guilt is defined as, “Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes—accurately or not—that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a universal moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation.”
Now, those definitions are quite the mouthful, so to simplify, Shame is feeling bad about who we are, Guilt is feeling bad about what we’ve done, and Blame is trying to make someone else feel bad. You may have noticed that all three are about feeling bad. More specifically, they are about feeling bad as a means of controlling one’s self or someone else.
Does this tactic work? Well, it seems to work often enough that the practice continues. Why do we want to control other people? And why do we want to do it with these tools? Our base nature and our training often have us believing that other people have to behave in a certain way for us to be happy. That is a false premise, but it is very widely accepted. If we believe someone else’s behavior will affect our happiness, it makes sense that we would want to control them. And the tools of shame, blame, and guilt often get that job done. Just look around, especially in the media.
Our next question is: Is this a useful thing? Trying to control others so that we can feel better is, quite frankly, giving away our power. Other people cannot make us feel better. It is only our own thoughts that can do that. Manipulation is born out of a sense of powerlessness and fear.
My belief is that shame is a completely useless emotion, when defined as feeling bad about who or what we are, our worthiness. We were made exactly as we are by design. Whether you believe we were designed by God and are living a life by his plan, or if you believe that your soul chose this path of your life to explore as an incarnation, or if you believe in no design and that we are just the culmination of circumstances, we are here, and that alone is what makes us worthy. We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Including ourselves. For some of us, that is the hardest part.
George Bernard Shaw observed, “We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinion, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins.
When we feel ashamed, we hide ourselves from the world, and this deprives the world of all the amazing qualities, skills, and talents we have. My feeling shame does not REALLY make you feel any better about yourself. Your feeling shame doesn’t make me feel any better abut myself. Gay people being ashamed of their gayness doesn’t make the members of Westboro Baptist Church feel any better about themselves. Overweight people being ashamed of their size doesn’t make anyone feel any better about themselves. Perhaps way back in our evolution, when conformity was required for survival, and not being part of the tribe meant you would literally die, maybe then shame had a function. But that is not the case today. Shame does not increase our chances of survival. Instead it increases our chances of depression, and in extreme cases, suicide – the opposite of survival. It does not make the world a better place. Just the opposite. Shame darkens the world. Blake Edwards in Victor/Victoria cynically wrote, “Shame is an unhappy emotion invented by pietists in order to exploit the human race.”
Guilt, on the other hand, does have some use, but not nearly as much as we give it credit for. Remember, we are using the definition that guilt is feeling bad about something we have done, our behavior. Guilt’s function, therefore, is to repair the damage that was done through our actions, and learn not to do that again. We apologize, we make restitution, we do whatever is required to make things right again. We learn our lesson and then we move on. We just need to remember that last part – we move on. Once the lesson has been learned and reparations made, there is nothing more to be done. When we don’t move on, that guilt can shift over to shame, which as I just showed, does not make the world a better place. I came across a lovely quote by Debra Campbell from a Huffington Post article. She said, “Even when we do wrong, accountability is helpful, compassion is helpful, apology and forgiveness are helpful, but shame is not.”
Speaking of forgiveness, I’d like to take a moment to talk about that, too, since it is so intimately tied up with shame and guilt and blame. We don’t have to wait for the other person to forgive us to let go of guilt and shame. The benefit of forgiveness lies entirely with the forgiver. The forgiven receives no benefit at all. “But what about the fact that the forgiver stops being mean to the forgiven?” you might ask. Well, it isn’t the forgiveness that does that, it is the choice of the forgiver to behave better, which can be done with or without forgiveness. Forgiveness is simply deciding to not harbor ill-will about something anymore. It is accepting that other people’s behavior is not what makes us feel bad.
What?! Other people’s behavior doesn’t make us feel bad? Nope. What makes us feel bad is entirely what we think about their behavior, not the behavior itself. How many times have you gained insight into someone’s motives for doing something hurtful and changed your mind about it? Let’s say someone spoke rudely to you. You would probably think thoughts that bring you pain about it, such as, “I’m not worthy,” or, “I did something to upset her.” Now let’s say that we discover that she was rude because she was really stressed at the time. You might then think, “Oh, it wasn’t about me at all.” Did her behavior change? No. The behavior is still the same. What changed was what we think about it. Our different thoughts make us feel better about it. We can choose to feel bad or not about anything at all. Our power lies in the ability to choose our thoughts, which are the only things that create our emotions. Let me repeat that. Our thoughts are the only things that create our emotions.
When we forgive someone, we are choosing to stop thinking painful thoughts about what they did. We are choosing to feel love and compassion for them instead. Love and compassion are always available to us if we choose them.
When we blame someone, which really is the opposite of forgiveness, we give away all of our power over our own emotions. We choose to make ourselves feel bad by pretending that we aren’t the ones doing it. We pretend that someone else has the ability to create our emotions. We all do it. But with practice and self-awareness we can take back our power. When we take some time to observe our thoughts, we can see the truth of these things.
Blaming others really only serves to make us feel worse, because not only do we feel wronged, but we are also giving away our power to feel better. When we say, “She made me feel this way,” that says that she has power over your thoughts and therefore your emotions. But she doesn’t. Only you do. There is no device that allows us to inject a thought into someone’s mind. Do we really want to even have that power? Do we want others to have that kind of power over us? Other people can offer us thoughts, but ultimately, it is up to us to choose to accept them or not.
To tie this back in with shame, if someone says, “You are so ugly,” they are offering you a thought. You don’t have to accept it. You are perfectly capable of choosing to think instead that you are so fiiiiiine. How you feel about yourself will not change what they think of you. It will change what they think of themselves even less. They offer you a thought, and you choose (either consciously or unconsciously – we have much more practice with doing it unconsciously) to accept it or reject it.
I would like to conclude with an excerpt from one of my favorite podcasts, The Life Coach School with Brooke Castillo. In episode 176, she says, “Here’s what I believe. We are humans who create lives based on what we think. Most of us don’t know how to choose those thoughts consciously. So most of us are living the effects of misguided thinking. Think about it. At our cores, at our soul level, at our humanness, we are the same.
Sometimes humans act rude, inappropriate and violent. These are things we do at the effect of our thinking. This is not who we are. We are humans who are 100% worthy and there’s nothing we can do to change that. You are worthy if you are born rich, and you are equally worthy if you are born poor.
You have the same worthiness if your parents were unspeakably abusive and if your parents loved you every second of your life. There is nothing you can do to become more worthy. There is nothing you can do to become more worthy, and there’s nothing you have ever done that has made you less worthy.
Your worthiness is already at capacity, and nothing you have done or will do will make you less worthy of a human. Lose all your money and become homeless, worthy. Cheat on your husband, worthy. Yell at your children, worthy.
So if you’re still with me and willing to explore this idea that we are all worthy, why even bother doing good and better things? Why not just give in to all of the crazy violent, horrible things? Great question. Because it makes your experience of being alive better. Not because it makes you better.
If you spend your life raping people, you are coming from a horrible place of pain and your life will be excruciatingly painful. If you spend your life loving people, and I mean loving people, even people who rape people, you are going to spend your life in love.
So if we are already good enough humans and nothing we have ever done has made us less or more good enough, how does this affect our lives? We have permission to live from abundance, confidence, and self-love. We are good enough simply because we were born on the planet. Your worthiness has already been decided, and there is nothing you can do about it.
No matter what your parents told you, no matter what the school kids told you, no matter what the teacher told you, no matter what your boss told you, no matter what your first, second or third wife told you, you are and always have been 100% worthy.
Prettier can’t increase it. Skinnier can’t, richer can’t, smarter can’t, more giving can’t, more kind can’t, more generous cannot increase your worthiness. Changing what you do will never make you more good enough than you already are. You are already good enough and there is nothing you can do about it.”