Shame and guilt: how to know the difference

shame and guilt
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Since Brene Brown gave her famous talk, the pop culture difference between shame and guilt has become that the latter makes you feel bad for what you did. The former makes you feel bad for who you are.

As a result, it’s believed guilt can help us by pointing out what we need to do differently. Shame, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities and offers no self-improvement benefits.

As a survivor of complex PTSD, I can attest to the way shame immobilizes you. It attacks you in waves and makes you feel “flooded” with feelings of self-loathing. These so-called emotional flashbacks can strike at any time and make it difficult to enjoy life.

Since undergoing neurofeedback treatment, I’ve experienced a lessening of these attacks. The shame of PTSD has been replaced by ordinary memories that no longer make me hate myself.

I now know firsthand how it feels to be free from both shame and guilt. My newfound memories allow me to experience past mistakes without pummeling me with self-criticism and self-loathing that allows no hope for change.

For this reason, I disagree about the helpfulness of guilt feelings though I do agree that shame and guilt differ in key ways. As Robert Augustus Masters writes in Emotional Intimacy: “Feeling guilty about something enables us to do it again.”

How shame and guilt manifest

shame and guilt

Guilt has to do with action, knowing what we’re doing is wrong but doing it anyway. Guilt can inspire rationalization that allows for repeat offences. For example, an abuser feels guilty about his offence but that rarely stops him from recommitting.

In fact, another pop culture psychology figure Dr. Phil stated boldly that “the best predictor of past behavior is future behavior.” So, in contrast to Dr. Brown’s claim, guilt makes us more likely to repeat than to curb bad behavior.

Guilt makes the addict say, “I’ll never drink or use again.” (She will). It also makes the weight watcher declare she’ll start her diet tomorrow – after this decadent dessert. All guilt does is stop us from enjoying the thing we’re going to do anyway.

Guilt makes us an enemy of ourselves by witnessing as we self-sabotage. It’s more active than shame which seems to come out of nowhere, burying us in immobilizing self-hatred.

It’s true that guilt focuses on what we’ve done wrong while shame exposes our perceived inherent “wrongness”. But contrary to popular current belief, neither guilt nor shame offer any self-improvement value.

Both shame and guilt ensure nothing changes and we stay mired in our patterns of self-sabotage. Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are the keys to releasing old habits and transforming into the person you’re meant to be in the world.

How to stop hiding your core gifts

core gifts
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I recently read a book called Deeper Dating. In it, the author says the things we hide are our greatest and core gifts.

If you’re a sensitive person, for example, you may have tried to develop a thick skin. But what if your sensitivity is your gift to the world?

Often, when we grew up without praise or encouragement from parents, we have a hard time accepting ourselves. If others failed to understand or support our core gifts, we suppress them to fit in.

But hiding core gifts in an effort to find acceptance is self-abandonment. And, besides, it never works. You come across as inauthentic and untrustworthy and you never become the person you’re meant to be in the world.

When you hide your core gifts, you attract people who will never make you feel supported because they don’t know the real you. Instead of seeking acceptance from others, the key is to accept yourself.

When you hide your core gifts, you attract people who will never make you feel supported because they don't know the real you. Click To Tweet

So, how can you begin to express your core gifts when you’ve been hiding them all along? How do you start to accept yourself when you’ve been self-abandoning for years? Here are 4 ways.

1. State your opinions.

When you disagree with someone, say so. When you stay silent or lend tacit agreement because you fear conflict, that’s self-abandonment.

You’re putting someone else’s need to be right ahead of your own need to be seen and heard. This ensures you’ll keep attracting people who don’t know the real you and you’ll continue to feel invisible.

2. Express your emotions.

core gifts

If you grew up with emotional neglect like I did, you may not trust your emotions. Maybe your complex PTSD has made you dysregulated around feelings.

The first step is to actually feel these feelings instead of denying them or distracting yourself from them. Really sink into them at first by journaling and/or sitting alone with them.

Once you’ve become more comfortable with your feelings, begin to express them to others. This will help you accept others’ emotions as well. Emotional honesty is an important part of relational intimacy and shows the real you.

3. Do what you want to develop core gifts.

Do you spend a lot of time fulfilling obligations that bring you no joy? Stop that. Make sure you’re doing more of what you love than what you hate.

Of course, responsibility is part of life but resist the habit of becoming over responsible. Putting others’ needs ahead of your own is a common outcome of unmet childhood needs.

Putting others' needs ahead of your own is a common outcome of unmet childhood needs. Click To Tweet

Parent yourself by taking care of your own needs first. Make a habit of asking yourself throughout the day what you need and giving it to yourself.

4. Invest in yourself to uncover core gifts.

You may resist spending money on yourself unless it provides a return on investment. But you are worth investing in and your mental health is the best ROI.

Depending on your resources, you may consider coaching, therapy, a retreat, or some other form of self care. If you spend money on others easily but have trouble doing the same for yourself, reconsider.

When overcoming a lifetime of self-abandonment, you may need help to uncover your core gifts. Invest time in self-knowledge through books or by spending more time on your own. Be patient with yourself as a lifetime of hiding takes time to transform.

Are you the family scapegoat? Here are 9 signs

family scapegoat
Image by Masaaki Komori

My mother suffered with an undiagnosed mental illness which made her incapable of experiencing empathy or compassion. My role as the family scapegoat began with me bearing the burden of my mother’s emotional neediness while displaying no needs of my own.

As I grew up and began to act out as a result of the years of emotional abuse and neglect, my family labeled me the problem child. I became a convenient diversion from the family’s real problems which were multi-faceted and generational.

Through studying the dynamics of dysfunctional family systems, I’ve learned my role as the repository for the family’s grievances is archetypal. They used me as the scapegoat for their own shortcomings, making me the problem instead of facing their need to change.

Origins of the family scapegoat

The scapegoat is first mentioned in the Bible as a living sacrifice. Rather than kill the animal, the community releases it into the wild to carry away the sins of the whole group.

Its only purpose is to bear the burden of sins that are not its own. Today, we more often see scapegoats in dysfunctional families.

The family singles out one person to take the blame for all the problems in the family. Rather than look at themselves, the family points a collective finger at the scapegoat.

This allows them to carry on in their dysfunctional patterns without changing. They pretend to themselves they’re all right while the scapegoat is all wrong.

The scapegoat is the one who tells the truth about obvious defects in the family. Rather than support, she experiences gaslighting from the rest of the family.

She may be the mentally healthiest member of the family but by banding together, the clan convinces itself, and the scapegoat, that the opposite is true.

She may not understand why the rest of the family is unwilling to admit the obvious, keeps secrets, and hides the truth. For the scapegoat, the truth will set you free, but she is part of a family system that would rather remain in chains.

Fear of change and exposure motivates the family to sacrifice the scapegoat this way. Rather than face the truth and the possibility of deconstructing the whole family system, they demonize the truth teller.

If any of this resonates with you and you believe you’ve been targeted as the family scapegoat, here are nine signs you’ve been put in this role.

1. You are punished for telling the truth.

It seems like anytime you speak the truth, your family rebukes you. They abandon or punish you when you don’t go along with the status quo.

They can’t acknowledge the obvious truths you point out and instead point the finger at you and say you are the one with the problem.

2. You are the whistleblower.

Perhaps you threatened to expose a family secret but somehow got branded the bad guy. That’s because your desire to bring the truth to light poses a threat to a family dynamic that functions in the dark.

The hardest part of being a scapegoat is that families can be exceptionally good at hiding their dysfunction. This results in further isolation when the victim is not believed.

3. Your family blames you for their shortcomings.

They refuse to examine the poor behavior you’re asking them to acknowledge. Instead, they point to your human reaction to that behavior and pretend that’s the issue instead.

A valid emotional response becomes further evidence you’re “crazy” or always stirring up trouble.

4. You’re held to a different standard.

You may notice thoughts and opinions similar to yours are celebrated when others express them. But when you say or do the same things you get maligned. In psychology, this is known as the black sheep effect.

5. You feel left out as the family scapegoat.

You may find yourself left out of family events or conversations. Because you tell the truth, they’d rather not hear from you.

At the same time, you get criticized for your absence at events you were never invited to. This provokes guilt in you even though you’re the one who has been ostracized.

6. They sully your reputation.

Family members talk about you behind your back and speak poorly of you even to those outside the family circle. Rather than face their dysfunction they’ll tarnish your reputation publicly.

This is so you won’t receive support from outside the family and they can continue in their collective delusion.

7. Your family makes you feel ashamed or guilty.

As a result of years of unjust treatment, you have internalized a false sense of being bad or wrong. This can lead to over responsibility as you try to prove your “goodness”.

You fail to protect yourself from offences against you as a means of “taking the high road”. Or bear the burden of repairing relationships that are either bad for you or not your job to fix.

8. As the family scapegoat, you receive little or no praise.

Your family downplays your accomplishments. You may have never been praised or encouraged for your achievements in life.

Without the motivation provided by a pat on the back for a job well done, you give up and fail to achieve anything close to your potential. On the flip side, you work ever harder trying to prove yourself.

9. You have a difficult relationship with your sibling(s).

You have trouble connecting with your siblings as equals. They treat you with the same disdain as the rest of the family, promoting a false narrative of you as a troublemaker, or even someone with mental health issues.

They disrespect and discredit you at every turn. And do not provide you with the support you see in other sibling relationships.

While there’s no magic number that confirms you are a family scapegoat, it’s safe to say answering yes to five or more of these signs would be a good indication.

It’s important to know it’s not your fault and you had no control over your position within the family. It’s a role that was forced on you from a young age.

Stay tuned for the next post on how to heal from scapegoating and reclaim your life from the lies your family has told you.

The social stigma of going no contact with toxic family

toxic family
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If you’ve had to go no contact with toxic family, you know the strength required to protect yourself this way. Often decades of internal work go into reaching such a drastic conclusion.

If you’ve dealt with toxic family you know it’s tantamount to having your head held underwater while drowning. Instead of throwing you a life preserver, or even ignoring you, they throw you a boulder.

As a result, you can rarely become the person God (or the universe) put you on earth to become. Therefore, detaching from unsafe family becomes a matter of survival and a spiritual battle for your life.

Gaslighting abounds within the toxic family. They call you crazy for displaying normal human emotions. They deny your reality, tell you you’re wrong to feel the way you do, or reinvent the past.

Gaslighting abounds within the toxic family. They call you crazy for displaying normal emotions. They deny your reality or reinvent the past. Click To Tweet

If you haven’t heard of gaslighting, it’s the way your family throws you under the bus to avoid dealing with their problems. They make you the problem to maintain their dysfunctional status quo.

They deny that anything bad has happened to you. Often, they make you believe you’re overreacting or selfish for wanting to be seen and heard or have your needs met.

Social stigma of detaching from toxic family

toxic family

I heard a dating coach tell his students that it’s a big red flag if someone has a troubled relationship with their family. This is an example of the social stigma attached to making the brave move to protect yourself from toxic people.

In addition to the pain and isolation of detaching from your abusers, you endure the social shame of being someone who “can’t get along with their family”.

After all, the common denominator is you, right? Your family seems to get along with each other and as they’ve told you, you’re the only one with a problem.

This is where the spiritual battle comes in. You may be the family scapegoat and that’s a biblical concept. You are the spiritual bearer of your family’s sins and they will keep piling on you until you take a stand for yourself.

You may be the family scapegoat and that's the spiritual bearer of your family's sins. They will keep piling on you until you take a stand for yourself. Click To Tweet

It’s a lie that truth hangs with the majority. Most often, the one who stands alone is the truth teller. Think of the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Jesus. Any whistleblower you can name.

As someone with the courage to stand up to your abusers and choose the truth you count yourself among the esteemed company listed above.

Most likely, you have been persecuted for refusing to go along with a lie. The lie of toxic family rules and roles. The lie that expressing emotions means you’re crazy. And there is no shame in that.

How to understand your attachment style

attachment style
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The #1 reason we struggle in relationships is often due to our attachment style. This is the way we connect and communicate with our friends, family, and romantic partners.

The three main types of attachment styles are secure, avoidant, and anxious. These develop in childhood depending on whether our emotional and physical needs were met.

People with secure attachment grew up with the knowledge that they could give and receive love. They feel worthy of love and view love as a natural thing. As a result, they seek intimacy in their relationships.

They might need time alone to recharge but do not tend to isolate. They are comfortable in relationships and believe those relationships are beneficial to them.

Securely attached people have good conflict resolution skills. These skills were taught in the home where people dealt with conflict in a healthy way.

If you grew up in a home where needs were not met, however, you would likely acquire an anxious or avoidant attachment style. In more rare cases (about 5%), you would develop a disorganized style.

A disorganized style comes out of a childhood in which fear and even terror was the backdrop. Addicted parents, severe abuse, and neglect might produce a disorganized style.

Signs of insecure attachment

attachment style

The avoidant doesn’t like asking for help. She feels she doesn’t need relationships and is fine on her own, thank you very much.

She might have learned that emotions don’t bring people closer. They push people away. So she’s uncomfortable being vulnerable or sharing her emotions.

People with avoidant style might run hot and cold in dating relationships. That means they pursue you until things start to get close, then pull away.

With anxious attachment style, however, the person comes across as “needy”. They feel they need people very much and put others ahead of themselves. And they may over-esteem others and think little of themselves.

They spend a lot of time preoccupied with their relationships and getting their needs met. This has the opposite effect of pushing people away, which is extremely painful.

The disorganized attachment is more severe and can wreak havoc in a person’s life. It can lead to problems with the legal system and addictions. This style displays aspects of both anxious and avoidant attachment.

Mistakes people make with attachment style

One mistake people make is assuming they have a disorganized style if they exhibit traits of both the avoidant and anxious. But displaying anxious traits when your primary style is avoidant does not necessarily indicate a disorganized style.

Another mistake is thinking you need to change your style to have successful relationships. In reality, it’s quite difficult to change your style. But you can use the self-knowledge to navigate your relationships.

For example, an anxiously attached person can ask their partner to check in with them more often. An avoidant partner can explain why they need more time alone.

Knowing your attachment style can help you understand why your relationships haven’t been working. Relationships then become a place where we resolve past trauma and learn the life lessons that help us grow.