Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Giving Up Shame, Not Guilt

Today is Ash Wednesday and as a former Catholic, it holds a lot of memories for me.  Many of my ideas about the Lenten season that leads up to Easter are expressed pretty well in this article on what people give up for Lent.  What I'm really thinking about though, is the guilt that often comes with religious practice.  If you are Christian, you know the question, "What are you giving up for Lent?"  There's really no reason to ask the question unless you want to evaluate somebody else's spiritual life.  Sometimes the interactions in religious settings leave people saying that they feel guilt or shame.

Now, I'm speaking from my own little head and heart here.  I'm not checking the dictionary or theological texts.  To me, guilt is good.  Guilt is the real outcome that results when someone is in relationship with another or committed to a set of values and beliefs and falls short of their own intentions.  For example, if I say something carelessly, or don't take time to really listen, or eat a ton of Girl Scout cookies (just a random example), or don't stop for a pedestrian in the crosswalk, I feel some guilt.  My intentions for myself are that I care for the people that are in my life, I care for myself and my health, and I care about being a good citizen.  My guilt is the little twinge that helps me remember to do better next time.

The problem is that instead of allowing ourselves to have healthy guilt we way too often dip into shame.  Again, from my own little head and heart, shame serves no purpose except to put people down and limit them.  Guilt says, "Why did you do that?  That's not who you are.  Make it right."  Shame says, "It sucks to be you.  Too bad you have to be so unacceptable, unlovable, (fill in the ick here)."  Unfortunately, I think we've all experienced shame at some point and it really leaves a mark.  The trap is that we sometimes avoid making any critical comments to ourselves or our loved ones, including children, because we don't want to leave that scar.  Not holding ourselves accountable or our children accountable, to our values is no good.

The reality is that being honest about mistakes, falling short and then owning it is good.  Having expectations for ourselves and our kids means that we believe that there is inherent goodness in them/us. It means that we want healthy relationships and strong connections and we want to learn how to "make it right" when it gets broken.  If you want to have a spiritual practice this Lent, think about your core values (related to God, your family, the Earth, whatever) and the thing(s) you can do to bring yourself back to who you really are.  That's some good guilt.

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