The thing is, I don't know how to tell the difference. Shame rings in my head. It's a harsh word. It pings and cuts. But guilt is deep and hollow. Guilt doesn't drive me towards anything--apology, change. Guilt sits like a pit in my stomach. A peach pit, say, wrinkled and brown, squeezed down my esophagus and stewing in my gut. Guilt is the way I was raised (not intentionally, no, but I was young and obsessive and it seeped into my brain like orange juice). Guilt is the way I defined myself, what decided my actions. Should I read my scriptures for a half hour a day? If not, I'll feel too guilty to sleep. (This was often tricky, since I was OCD; the New Testament has such short books, but I couldn't move onto another book once I finished a certain book in the same night, so I just had to read the same verses over and over and over and over again until the time was up.) Did I snap at my brother? Yes, I feel guilty, and I have to keep leaving my room and apologizing over and over and over again until my mom snaps at me to stop, okay, we get it.
The notion that guilt can be healthy isn't new--I remember the seminary video starring Aaron Eckhart, the groom of a despoiled bride who didn't want to cancel her wedding because she felt "the shame of the world." Not until she felt the "shame before the Lord" could she repent and move towards a temple wedding again. Strangely enough, that video didn't do a lot of good--it sparked a thirteen-year-old panic about canceling a wedding the day before and the shame of having everyone know you'd done something wrong, even though the point of the video was to teach us that if we feel embarrassed, we're just being wordly--we need to feel guilty about hurting God's feelings and breaking his commandments, not about calling all of our invitees and un-inviting them because, oops, we're whores!
Anyway, I'm still working on figuring out the difference. It's okay to feel guilty if I do something that hurts someone else, as long as that guilt is healthy--inspires me to action or apology (not excessive apology, that compulsive habit of my childhood self). Shame is a more ambiguous concept, which makes it harder to figure out how to eliminate. The only thing I can think to do, now, to counteract it, is to speak positively to myself and others: You look fine today. In spite of arguments to the contrary, suicidality is not a sin. This is not your fault. There are good things about you.
I once had to make a list of the things I liked about myself for a Women's Health class (which, tangentially, I took my senior year of college and which was my first introduction to birth control, pregnancy, and what the hell menstruation actually is--all good facts that should never be denied to ANY woman, including girls who grow up in Provo. Thanks, Utah's educational system!). First I had to list ten things I liked about my appearance. Then I had to list ten things I liked about myself--my character, my personality. It was surprisingly, shockingly, embarrassingly hard. Which only served to make me more depressed, of course. But it was a good lesson for me to learn. In order to eliminate all that excess shame that society and family and random acquaintances and kids from high school on my facebook wall and even I pour all over myself like hot tar, like wax, like eggs pelted from a car window, I should spend some time each day thinking of things I like about myself. Try to chip away at the icy cave I sometimes feel I've sealed myself away in, severing myself away from myself and the good things in life that I love and like, and the people I care about.
Anyway, if any of you have insights about the difference between guilt and shame, I'd love to hear them. I'm still trying to figure it out myself. Have a lovely week, everyone, and a fun Thanksgiving. I wish my aunt's A-MA-ZING mashed potatoes on you all!
The poem of the week is for those of you, who, like me, suffer from SAD--Seasonal Affective Disorder--that is slowly settling on us all as the November gloom descends. Emily Dickinson gets us.
There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons – That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes – Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – We can find no scar, But internal difference, Where the Meanings, are – None may teach it – Any – 'Tis the Seal Despair – An imperial affliction Sent us of the Air – When it comes, the Landscape listens – Shadows – hold their breath – When it goes, 'tis like the Distance On the look of Death –