The Guilt-Shame Tango

I hope that picture doesn’t offend anybody – I’m Catholic – or else I’ll just have something else to feel guilty about and right now, friends, I don’t need that.

Let’s start off by saying that my mom, who was old school Irish Catholic, could make me feel guilty for having to go to the bathroom. She’d whack me on the ass if I got snarky (which, in case you hadn’t noticed, is just part of my personality) and then, when I cried, because getting smacked on the ass hurts when you’re a little kid, she’d give me that line that we all hated: “Stop crying before I give you something to cry about.”  I obviously already HAD something to cry about, but there was no reasoning with the woman when I was 5 and she was….older. Actually, I never learned to reason with my mom, but I did learn to sidestep the ass-smacks.

Then she sent me off to the nuns. If I had been feeling a little bit of the guilt bug before, the nuns nailed it in really, really well. I bit my nails in first grade, mainly because I was a nervous wreck of a kid and wanted to do everything right. The nun who taught my class, Sister Saint Ignatius, would come sliding down the aisle in her habit and nun skates (I still believe they move on wheels, the old ones anyway) and would loom over my desk and ask to look at my hands. I would turn my hands palm up, trying to put off the inevitable. Then she would tell me to turn them over. When she saw the ragged nubs that passed for fingernails, she would mock me then make me kneel in the front of the room and pray for forgiveness for desecrating my body, and for the strength to stop myself from this disgusting habit. It felt like hours but it was probably only about 15 minutes. The floors were wood, and my knees would start to kill me, but pray I did, and fervently, mainly that Sister would get struck down in front of the class by a lightning bolt straight from the Big Guy himself. Never happened (that’s when I started to doubt the power of prayer).


Getting older didn’t seem to help, and high school not only refined my high sense of being responsible for everything that went wrong and everybody that DID something wrong, it also convinced me that I was not only unattractive but pretty stupid and not fit for human company. Looking back, I now realize that the rest of the kids in that school were not human and I just wasn’t fit for THEIR company, but I went on to drop out and get my GED, rather than deal with the daily dose of bullshit and humiliation. I got an English degree a few years later from a very prestigious New York university, but even that didn’t salve the wounds. I think I tried harder than anyone in any of my classes. I had never had a problem acing any material, I could merely skim it and come out with at least a B+. But in college I worked so hard, my parents worried about my health. I was graduated from said university summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, editor of the literary rag – and feeling guilty that someone else didn’t get at least the suma or the editorship.

And so it went, on into adulthood, the guilt following me around like an unwanted suitor with bad teeth and body odor. I went to therapy. Didn’t help (especially since the therapist had the nasty habit of talking to my boobs when he addressed me – I was super glad there was no “couch” in his office or I would have had to kill him). I tried meditating and felt guilty about the time I was taking away from something more productive. I drank and did drugs. That helped while I was doing them. It helped a lot. But when I sobered up, the guilt was three times as bad as it was before because I had probably done something completely inappropriate to at least two people – and my friends were more than happy to call me the next morning and obliterate my beloved blackout by filling me in on all the details.


The good thing about the drug and alcohol use was that it got me into AA and NA, where I was taught (and I learned slowly on this point) that guilt is a wasted emotion. No one should walk around feeling guilty all the time. And it’s usually tied in with shame, which tells us not that we did a bad thing (guilt) but that WE are inherently bad people (shame). That’s a shitty way to live your life.

I’ve for the most part tried to let the guilt go. It still rears its ugly head if I miss a deadline or forget a birthday (which is hard to do, since Facebook reminds me for weeks about birthdays, so if I miss one it’s only because I didn’t log in that day). But it’s not ruling my life. I have made it my goal to refuse to feel guilty for the way other people feel. I can’t MAKE anybody feel any kind of way, just like nobody can make ME feel any kind of way. No one can MAKE ME feel guilty, or angry, or anything else. It’s all in how I receive the other person’s words and behaviors. It doesn’t always work, but keeping that in mind helps me out a lot.

With all that said, it bothers me when I hear a parent tell a small child, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” There is absolutely no reason for any child to be ashamed. Perhaps they have done something that they should feel sorry about, in which case they should apologize and the matter should be dropped. If it was a big deal thing, like microwaving their sister’s Barbie, punishment of some kind is probably warranted (and here I’m not going to tell people whether or not to spank – I never saw the need to spank my children but as long as people are not leaving physical scars – I believe it does leave emotional scars – it’s none of my business how you raise your kids). But telling them to be ashamed? That’s just setting them up for a lifetime of feeling bad about themselves. Which, if they don’t get past it, will lead to them doing the same to their children.

Guilt and shame ruled my life for a very long time, and I’m happy that for the most part I’m free of them. I wish everybody could go to AA – the 12 Steps are a really great plan for living, even if you don’t have a substance abuse problem. But if I can take away one thing from the program and pass it on to whoever stumbles across this blog, it would be that we must always remember that we are NOT inherently bad. There is nothing wrong with us just as we are. There is always room for improvement, but we are only responsible for putting in the work – we cannot control the outcome. And we should never feel guilty about it if we put in the best work of which we were capable.