Wellness Wednesday: Guilt, Shame, and Forgiveness

June 6th is always a hard date/anniversary for me. It’s strange that Wellness Wednesday happened to fall on it, when I haven’t been doing this for very long. Five years ago today my Grandma on my mom’s side passed away while I was holding her hand. I was watching her breath fog up her oxygen mask … and it slowly stopped. When she actually passed she wasn’t agitated and yelling for help like she was the night before, at least she was peaceful the last day. I feel guilt for not really having done anything with my life while my grandma was alive. She passed right before I started my master’s. I feel guilt for not being able to help my mother like she wanted me to. And I feel guilt for not living happily like she had always wished, though I have been trying harder to rectify that. My mom sort of pressured me, I think, to not let on how badly I was doing so as not to worry my Grandma, so I never felt like she really knew me. It’s hard to not feel seen/known by the people around you. Her name is Helen, and I’m currently reading the Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte and the main character is Helen, so that’s interesting. June 6th is also a strange date for me because in 2016 I embarked on a journey on this day across the world (from my perspective) to Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji with a friend who turned out not to be so good of a friend.  I feel guilty for not just trusting myself and being ok with my decision to cut her out of my life and for not standing up for myself better. Anyway… June 6th is not a fun day.

Working the drug and alcohol field I am no stranger to running groups and facilitating sessions about guilt and shame… that doesn’t mean that I don’t experience these things myself.

What has been helpful for me being hurt and having hurt other people and moving toward healing and forgiveness is recognizing the type of pain that I was put in… and how for a finite period of time, yes, I was vengeful and did wish it on the people who had hurt me, but over time when my head cleared and I returned to myself, I realized I wouldn’t wish that anguish on anyone. That helped me take a step toward forgiveness and healing for myself: knowing that I was free of thinking about pain and revenge and knowing that even though someone wronged me, I don’t want them to live in misery for the rest of their life and I don’t want to remain in misery by holding on to what happened for the rest of my life. It’s a process, it doesn’t happen all at once. Some days I can feel sort of at peace with where I am, and other days I am bewildered and angry again. As time goes on, though, I think I came to realize that most of the people I met in my life are basically good. They may lose their way and hurt people in the process, but it usually stems from some deep confusion or past pain on their end rather than a shortcoming of mine. That notion has helped me immensely, and helped me to grow and heal from things that have happened to me.

There is a fundamental difference between guilt and shame that is worthy of noting. Guilt refers to having done something wrong, an action, that one feels badly about and is responsible for. Shame stems from thinking that you are  a “wrong” or “bad” person, and it is a much darker place to be. Shame can be very damaging if you live in it for quite a while, like I have, for various reasons. Here are a few points to remember when working through guilt and shame and moving toward forgiveness, whether it’s forgiving yourself or others:

  • People who wrong you and harm you deeply, are likely very sick (spiritually/mentally) and in pain themselves, even if it seems as though they may get pleasure out of hurting others, it stems from some pain or illness within themselves.
  • If you have wronged someone else, part of healing for yourself and for that other person is to acknowledge it without becoming defensive, take responsibility for it, and be open to having painful conversations about it to help the other person process and potentially understand the reasons for what happened, even if they won’t like them.
  • Recognize that wallowing in shame and self-pity for the rest of your life not only does yourself a disservice, but also the person that you wronged, because it shows that you have not taken the action to change. It can become easier, more familiar, to be down on yourself and use it as an excuse for inaction.
  • If someone has harmed you, recognize your worth, even if they don’t seem to. You should not define yourself by how other people treat you, even if that is hard. If someone doesn’t see your worth, that has to do with their own clouded judgement rather than anything inherent about you.
  • If you’ve made bad choices or handled situations poorly in the past, recognize why you did it, or what contributed, and take steps to not let that happen again. For myself, I tend to make bad decisions when I’m not taking care of myself. I let myself deteriorate and then wonder why I live in a place of fear and confusion. So I’ve been taking more steps to take care of myself (not overwhelm myself with work/school, taking time for myself, eating better, exercising regularly, trying to sleep better/more, etc).  It’s easier to handle hard situations when you’re in the right state of mind and taking care of yourself. Also, own what you did and be open to processing with someone that you’ve hurt.
  • Forgiving yourself is hard, especially if you feel like you’ve been a weak person. For me, I’ve tried to recognize that I did the best I could with the information and resources I had at the time: I was depleted emotionally, spiritually, socially, etc… so it made sense that I deteriorated when someone betrayed me. I try to take better care of myself now, not so things won’t hurt me, but so they won’t destroy me if someone should wrong me again.

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