For most of my life, I have had a tendency for being a little bit too tough on myself, in all the wrong ways. I learned a few years ago the human habit of mistaking GUILT for SHAME, and frankly, it changed my life.
GUILT is the experience of regret about something I want to rightfully change (in other words, I experienced something I didn’t like, so I want to make amends and not do it again). SHAME is the measure of worth in accordance to the guilt. Most humans have the tendency to take experience of GUILT, and turn it into the experience of SHAME. (Americans are amazing at this, and women are even more impressive, as are those who grew up in conservative religious households).
Examples: If my son makes a mess and I get angry and scream at him, I will later feel guilty. I don’t like screaming at my son and I should have handled it differently. I make amends and we clean up the mess together and I learn a lesson about myself. That is GUILT.
If my son makes a mess and I get angry and scream at him, and then suddenly I start beating myself up for being a terrible parent who makes huge mistakes, and I think I’m messing my children up, and I wonder why I ever decided to become a father… well, that is SHAME.
If I feel sad one evening and I eat an entire pizza to feed my feelings, and later I will feel bloated and gross. I decide that I don’t like how that feels and recommit to myself to eat better and exercise. That is GUILT.
If I feel sad one evening and I eat an entire pizza to pizza to feed my feelings, and later I will feel bloated and gross. I decide that I am a fat, lazy slob that no one will ever love and why do I even work out or try to look good because I’ll be single forever. This is SHAME.
And while we all have individual examples applicable to our lives, families, and internal doubts and struggles, these principles are universal. Simply put, GUILT is healthy, and SHAME is not.
I work with my clients in therapy on these principles constantly. When I first point out SHAME to them, many of them feel SHAME about having SHAME. Ironic, isn’t it?
One of my very favorite quotes is from a Jewel song. “No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.”
And so, over the years, I have learned to be forgiving and kind toward myself after I experienced GUILT, and I learned to begin separating out the SHAME. Any negative patterns within myself, I began sorting out because I realized they were bringing me pain. They were things I wished to be free from.
I’ve been single, almost exclusively, for nearly five years now. I have balanced out a single life with one where I have learned to be more and more true to myself as a professional, as a father, and as a friend. I am getting better and better at being a strong, compassionate, and authentic person who puts himself first in healthy ways, learning more from the GUILT experiences and reducing the amount that come from SHAME.
And that brings us to Valentine’s Day, a day when it is easy to sit and lament being alone, to dredge up sadness and bitterness about the times when I fell in love or tried too hard or had my heart broken. It’s easy to jump to a SHAME space about being single, as if the status of being in a relationship somehow automatically assigns me more worth as a human being.
I’ve given love a good shot a few times over the years, hoping there will be times when it pays off. And I’ve learned that while it hasn’t yet, I can offer myself the same love I hope to receive from other people. My life is slowly and surely transforming, turning ever more amazing as I proceed down positive paths, learning as I go.
And in my mind, firmly in the GUILT space, are the memories of painful times in dating in the past:
The time that man, after making out with me on a date, sent me a message the next morning that said ‘That was a mistake, I don’t find you that cute. We won’t be going out again.’
The time another man had sex with me after a date and told me, while still cuddling with me, that I had soft skin and a nice dick, but I needed to work harder on the rest of me.
That time another man kissed me and then immediately said, “I shouldn’t have done that. I respect you too much.”
That time I pined after a man for far too long who I loved, and who loved me, but the man lived far away and refused to be with me even when he could have been.
That time when I was told that I had all the qualities a man was looking for, but that my children were holding me back.
The times I have been told I’m too confident, or too smart, or not handsome enough, or that I don’t drink enough, or that I don’t have enough money.
All of those comments on dates that have reinforced SHAME, measuring my worth as a date-able commodity, I learned to instead push them into the GUILT category, and to begin learning about myself through the types of men I date, and how they treat me, and who I choose to give of my time and attention to, and how I treat myself after these experiences, and who I surround myself with, and how I pursue relationships.
And while I remain open to love and relationships with the right person, the greatest lesson I’ve learned is to turn that love and attention toward myself and my children.
And thus it is that today, at age 37, I am thrilled to be my very own Valentine.