Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, UT. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.
OPINION – Sometimes the one we abuse is not another but ourself, as this week’s Q-and-A considers.
I find that I’m pretty guilt-ridden and often become my own worst critic. Do you have any suggestions for how I can stop beating myself up emotionally?
I’m glad you are willing to ask for help with this important question. There are many things you can do to replace harsh self-loathing with self-compassion.
First of all, I need to define some terms. There is an important difference between guilt and shame. These two words are often used interchangeably. However, they not only have different definitions, they also have tremendous implications for the way we understand our internal world.
Guilt is the emotion we experience when we make a mistake. Guilt is about behavior and performance. Guilt is an important emotion, as it lets us self-correct when we’re out of line. So, if I make a mistake, I feel guilt; and when I do something different, I eventually feel relief.
Shame, on the other hand, is a negative experience of self. It’s all about character and worth. Where guilt tells us that we made a mistake, shame tells us we are a mistake. Guilt tells us we did something bad. Shame tells us we are bad. Shame is binding and a deep experience of inadequacy and powerlessness.
If a person is shame-based, they look for evidence of their flawed nature all around them. They are defensive, afraid of feedback, critical of self and others, and they often have unrealistic expectations. Oftentimes, shame-based individuals have difficulty taking compliments from others; they believe that if the other person really knew them, they wouldn’t say such nice things. Living with shame is exhausting.
If you are struggling with beating yourself up emotionally on a regular basis, then you are most likely experiencing shame. If, rather, you were feeling guilt then you would feel better after you made corrections to your mistakes. In your case, it sounds like you chronically feel broken and flawed.
Undoing shame is a long-term process of challenging long-held beliefs and negative experiences of self. It often requires seeking support from those who love you unconditionally.
It can also help to seek out readings on undoing shame. There are many good books available on healing shame. Two of my favorites are “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown and “Letting Go of Shame” by Ronald Potter-Efron.
Shame is often passed down through family systems, so you may find that siblings and parents also share some of the same shame-based beliefs about themselves. Talking with them can also reduce your own isolation and self-judgment.
As you begin to work on your shame, you’ll experience a new freedom that was previously unavailable to you. You’ll have a fresh view of yourself and others. You’ll be able to feel hopeful about changing unhealthy patterns. You’ll be able to see mistakes as learning experiences instead of proof that you’re defective. You’ll be less judgmental and critical of yourself and others.
Be patient with yourself as you begin this process. It’s a lifetime commitment of working to see yourself and others more clearly.
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Copyright 2012 St. George News.