Shame & Guilt

At Down To Earth, we frequently encounter people who are wrestling with issues of shame and/or guilt and have developed some easy-to-understand ideas about shame and guilt that we use to help people manage these uncomfortable feelings.

Children are born without any concept of shame or guilt and they would never feel either one unless they were taught to do so. We do teach our children shame and guilt because, in small quantities, they are very necessary for us all to be able to live together in society.

We teach children to be ashamed about their bodies or they would be pretty busy showing off their genitals to whoever wanted to see them. Although there is nothing shameful about our bodies, we agree, as a society, that our bodies should generally be kept private. The shame we teach our children helps them control the natural impulse to show off their bodies.

We teach children to feel guilty about some of the things they say or they would run around all day calling people “fat” and “ugly” and “smelly.” Although those things may be true, we agree, as a society, that those things are hurtful. The guilt we teach our children prompts them to apologize when they hurt others by speaking the truth.

So, having a little shame and a little guilt is a good thing. Shame helps us control our unacceptable impulses and guilt kicks in when we somehow failed to control one of those unacceptable impulses. Guilt motivates us to fix our mistakes.

At Down To Earth, we typically see three things that go wrong that cause people to get stuck in guilt.

First, we don’t admit our mistakes. It’s incredibly hard and painful to admit that you’ve made a mistake, so many people just won’t admit it. They either deny that it was a mistake or they blame someone else for their own mistakes. They get stuck in the guilt because the only way to make guilt go away is to fix what you’ve done and you can’t fix what you’ve done if you won’t admit you that you did it.

Second, we don’t fix our mistakes. Admitting mistakes is so hard to do that sometimes it takes people a very long time to do it. By the time you’re ready to admit that you’ve made a mistake, the situation is so old that there doesn’t appear to be any way to fix it. Since there doesn’t seem to be any way to fix it, the guilt just stays because the only way to get it to go away is to fix what you’ve done and you can’t fix it if you don’t believe it can be fixed.

Third, we try to fix other people’s mistakes. When someone else makes a mistake and blames you for it, you automatically feel guilty because a mistake has been made. However, since it wasn’t your mistake, you’ve got no way to fix it. The guilt just hangs around because the only way to get it out of your life is to fix what you’ve done wrong and if you haven’t done anything wrong, there’s nothing to fix.

So, there is only one way to get out of the guilt rut and that is to ask yourself very seriously and very honestly if you have done anything wrong, if you have made any mistakes.

If you have made a mistake, you must admit it, apologize, and fix it in order to relieve your guilt. There is no other way to get that guilt out of your life.

If you have made a mistake, but it was so long ago that you think you can’t do anything to fix it, think again. Try to remember something from long ago where someone did something bad to you but never fixed it. You don’t just forget it. You might not think about it very often and you might not do much about it, but you don’t forget it. You stay angry in the back of your mind forever until it’s fixed. Kids take that same approach to parents’ mistakes. Apologies that come 20 years late are still very much better than the ones that never come. So, if you actually made a mistake long ago, it is never too late to fix it. There is no other way to relieve yourself of that kind of guilt.

If you have not made a mistake, but are being blamed for someone else’s mistake, you must not accept the blame. You must put the blame back where it belongs. Once the blame is appropriately placed on the person who really made the mistake, you will stop feeling guilty and the person who did the wrong will start.

It is very common for loving, caring parents to try to fix their children’s mistakes for them. When a child messes something up, the parent tries to fix it for them and make everything better. The problem with that is that it robs the child of very valuable learning experiences. It robs the child of the chance to get relief from the guilt of having made the mistake. A child must learn how to admit mistakes, apologize if necessary, and fix mistakes if they are to grow up and be happy adults who are not plagued by guilt.

If a parent makes excuses for a child’s behavior, they are not teaching the child how to admit mistakes. If a parent fixes the situation for the child, they are not teaching the child how to fix their mistakes. If a parent takes a child’s consequences for them, they are teaching the child to blame others and expect others to fix their mistakes. These parenting mistakes can sentence a child to a life full of guilt.

When a child makes a mistake, parents can teach children how to admit mistakes by describing the mistake simply and without being overly punitive or critical. If a kid is pouring milk and he spills it, he’ll automatically feel bad. You don’t have to make them feel worse, there’s no point to that. For example, you can smile and say, “Oops, that milk was too heavy and you spilled it,” instead of snapping out something like, “Hey, what are you doing with that milk, look at that big mess you made!” If you respond to mistakes as if they are just normal things that happen, your children will have the courage to admit when they have made one. If mistakes are horrible, terrible things that make everyone upset, kids have a hard time admitting when they’ve screwed up. If a kid is always afraid to admit his mistakes, he’s doomed to a life of guilt as an adult.

Parents can help children learn to apologize by modeling it for them rather than doing it for them. For example, if your kid calls some lady at the grocery store, “fat,” don’t apologize to the lady yourself. You can put a hand on your child’s shoulder and tell him in a matter of fact way, “It’s not nice to call people fat, it hurts people’s feelings, you need to tell that lady you’re sorry for hurting her feelings.” It’s difficult and embarrassing to apologize, so your child might need some time to get up the courage to do it, so wait. Wait until your child apologizes, even if you hold the line up at the store. Then make sure to commend them for making the apology. Tell them how proud you are that they said they were sorry for hurting someone’s feelings. If you fix the mistake for them by apologizing, they never learn to fix their own mistakes and are doomed to a life full of guilt.

If you say something critical and punitive like, “watch your mouth, that’s rude,” you make the child feel bad, but give them no way to relieve themselves of the guilt that they feel. They feel ashamed and guilty and the feeling just lingers and they don’t know how to get rid of it. The apology is what makes the guilt go away. If you don’t have your kids do that, they just wallow in the guilt indefinitely.

Parents can help children learn to fix their own mistakes by helping them observe the consequences rather than removing the consequences or providing solutions. For example, if a child spills milk and you clean it up, you have taught your child that other people should fix your mistakes. If you tell them to clean it up, you have at least taught them that they have to fix their own mistakes, but not how to come up with the solutions themselves. Therefore, they don’t learn to fix their own mistakes and are slated to continual guilt as adults.

Instead, you could say, “Okay, there’s milk all over the floor, what can you do about that?” A kid with half a brain will be able to figure out that it needs to be cleaned up without you having to tell them. That will give them practice in coming up with their own solutions. Granted, a young child will not do a particularly good job cleaning up the milk, but it is still a good idea to have them do it and then compliment them on having cleaned up their own mess. Next, go back to helping them observing the consequences. State that the two of you together have to check if it’s really clean and run your hand over the area she cleaned and have her do the same. Again, a child with working intellect will notice the difference between smooth and sticky. You can make a brief comment like, “it’s a little bit sticky, isn’t it,” and that should be enough to prompt them to take another crack at cleaning it because you’re not being critical or punitive, you’re just describing the situation and once again, they come up with the solution themselves and fix their own mistakes.

People get stuck in guilt for three main reasons: they don’t admit mistakes, they don’t fix mistakes, and they try to fix other people’s mistakes. Parents can raise children who are not plagued by guilt by teaching children to admit and fix their own mistakes. If parents haven’t yet learned how to admit and fix mistakes, they have to teach themselves first before they can successfully teach their children.

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