If used well, blame and guilt don’t lead to self-bullying. They’re useful ways of motivating us to do better, even though they can cause a lot of wear and tear on our bodies, minds and hearts. If we analyze our actions objectively we might take on the blame for some of what we did or failed to do. We can decide how to make amends. We can decide what actions would be better and we can strive to do better next time.
We can also use guilt and feeling ashamed of an action to motivate us to act better next time. That’s a hard way of motivating ourselves but it’s often effective.
However, wallowing or obsessing in blame or guilt without changing behavior is merely self-bullying. At some point, self-abuse becomes addictive and gratifying. There can be a sinister pay-off in the pleasure of feeling wretched.
Unrelenting and deep shame, on the other hand, leads to destructive self-bullying – negative self-talk, self-doubt and self-harassment, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and increased anxiety and depression.
By shame, I mean the idea that “There’s something wrong with me; I’m bad, evil or defective; I’ll never be free from sin; I’ll never succeed; I’m cursed.”
This kind of deep shame, as opposed to the way I’m using blame, guilt and feeling ashamed, is not focused on an action. This kind of deep shame points us at supposed defects deep within us, at defects that we can’t change, at defects in our identity. There’s no escape from the flaws we imagine are inherent and permanent. The self-laceration of this kind of shame is endless and self-defeating.
Where does this deep shame come from? We’re not born with this kind of shame. We’re born demanding that we be fed, clothed and have our diapers changed. Little babies don’t question whether they deserve to get what they need for survival; they demand it. That demanding approach is necessary for our survival.
Deep shame can only be taught to us through continued and brutal repetition – physical, verbal, emotional. Eventually, most children internalize constant harassment, criticism, put-downs and denigration – assaults on our identity.
Imagine how you’d feel if someone shouted or scolded you, 24/7, “You’re bad. You’re defective. You’re wrong. You shouldn’t have been born. You’ll never do better. I wish you were dead.”
However those harsh and shaming messages were thrown at us, whoever the bullies were, our task as adults is to leave them behind. The two critical steps in leaving home are to leave physically and to leave mentally-emotionally.
The first leaving is obvious to most of us; we get financially independent in order to stay physically independent. We test ourselves against the world, not our parent’s opinions. Can we earn a leaving? Can we meet people and make friends? Can we love and be loved?
The second leaving is mental, emotional and spiritual. We put aside all their beliefs, ideas, attitudes, values, opinions, rules, roles and moods – all the ways they thought mattered in how to face the world, how to earn a living, what equaled a good life, how to be a good person.
We put aside all the false ways they thought about us – whether we were good or bad, strong or weak, stupid or smart, pretty or ugly, hard-working or lazy, the prized child or the scapegoated child, probably going to be successful or guaranteed to fail, blessed to be happy or doomed to be miserable.
We put aside all we were handed when we were children and all we accepted because they were the big, right and righteous people and we were the little and learning people, and because we knew what would happen to us if we disagreed.
To become independent adults we must cast aside all of their opinions and, as independent no-longer children, we must choose and adopt our own beliefs. Some may be the same as theirs; some may be exactly the opposite.
The two important aspects of that mental, emotional and spiritual leaving: One is that our ideas are now adopted by us as adults, with our adult understandings, meanings and limitations. The second is that they are not carved in stone as childhood ideas are. We change them as we get feedback from the world – does this idea actually fit the reality I can now see clearly with adult eyes; does this way of facing the world get me closer to what I want; does it help me be and do good as I now think of that?
In this destroying and creating anew our inner world and our ideas of the ways of the outer world, we can choose whether to keep blame or guilt. But, in order to be free and independent, we must discard deep shame as a way of thinking about ourselves and of facing the world. We can excise the stain we once accepted, we can heal the great empty space we once had, and we can fill us with ourselves at our best. We can develop strength, courage and skill.
Then we can look back at the bullies in our family and decide whether to be with them at all or when and how to be with them. If they continue to bully us, if their bullying continues to trigger our self-bullying patterns we are better served by disconnecting, by making distance – electronically and physically.
If they treat us as newly made adults they’ve just met and want to be friends with, instead of forcing us back into their old images, instead of continuing to try to beat us into the shape they want we will probably want to be with them sometimes.
My recommendations: Don’t stay where you’re continually blamed, guilted or shamed. Be where you’re respected, appreciated, honored. Also, don’t accept the one of you that continually blames, guilts or shames you. Train and discipline yourself so that you have better internal self-talk. Live with the good inner coach you create, not with the internal bully who sounds like your parents, still ripping you down.
For clear examples, read in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” the studies of how Kathy, Doug, Jake and Carrie got away from bullying, abusive parents.