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Our Relationship to Guilt and Shame


How limiting is it when I…


Answer the phone from guilt or shame?


Work from guilt or shame?


When I am trying to be a friend from guilt or shame?


Trying to parent from guilt or shame?


It could be helpful to begin by sharing how I relate and experience the words guilt and shame, and what they mean for me on a personal level. That’s important, because without that, what I’m about to share hereafter may not make a lot of sense.


First off, in my experience, there are two varieties of guilt and shame. One is healthy and the other is toxic. For me the line of demarcation of what makes it toxic or not is the sense that it’s addressable and potentially resolvable; in some way or not.


In the Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, he writes... “Just as the government has a book of laws that rule the society’s dream, our belief system is the Book of Laws that rules our personal dream. All these laws exist in our mind, we believe them, and the Judge inside us bases everything on these rules. The Judge decrees, and the Victim suffers the guilt and punishment. But who says there is justice in this dream? True justice is paying only once for each mistake. True injustice is paying more than once for each mistake.


How many times do we pay for one mistake? The answer is thousands of times. The human is the only animal on earth that pays a thousand times for the same mistake. The rest of the animals pay once for every mistake they make. But not us. We have a powerful memory. We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty, and we punish ourselves. If justice exists, then that was enough; we don’t need to do it again. But every time we remember, we judge ourselves again, we are guilty again, and we punish ourselves again, and again, and again.” And for this reason, in our society many of us have a very unhealthy… toxic relationship with guilt and shame that can powerfully distort the relationship we have with ourselves and others. As I have come to say to people in Twelve Step Recovery-Land, how do we ever get to “Fully whole and wholly free,” if we have to carry around guilt and shame for the rest of our lives?

Guilt for me is a measurable behavior or something that I said, that goes against my personal or shared values that results in me thinking and feeling bad about it; associated with a specific date, time, and place. Because of that, there’s a specific action I can take to “Clean up my side of the street,” so to speak so that I can accept responsibility for what I did, and not repeat it. In Twelve Step Programs when people get to Steps Eight (We made a list of those that we harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all), and Step Nine (We made direct amends to those we harmed, except when to do so would injure them or others) it usually shows up as a version of restitution, rather than actual amends, which I’ll explain later, in terms of difference. Shame on the other hand isn’t necessarily measurable for me. It’s usually not associated with a specific date, time and place. It’s more about the way I am as a person and how I perceive myself or experiences, where there’s no clear cut “Fixes.”

The best example that comes to mind is the relationship with my brother Paul. When I was ten, I stole his Green Lantern comic-books. I loved the art and stories from the Green Lantern. I would ask him to share them… he wouldn’t, and so I did what kids sometimes do I took them. He’d get mad, tell mom, I’d feel bad, and I’d go dig them out and give them back, promising never to do it again… until the next time. On the other hand… not showing up to our relationship physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually in responsible ways was how I ended up experiencing shame. Because of the nature of my addiction… poverty… I’m somehow broken and not enough mind… I never really felt a part of my biological family, which expressed itself as being distant, depressed, aloof, and high or drunk on all the time; not just on drugs but codependent relationships… school… work… food… you name it, I can relate to it.

This is where Zen meditation… Recovery from addiction-mind meditation… and Amends comes in. These practices gave me a clear, decisive and direct means and process to change not only how I relate to myself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They opened portals that allowed me to have conscious contact with others; private and shared experiences, as well as myself that allowed for healing torn… wounded… relationships with compassion, deep care, and equanimity. In my experience the ability to experience healthy guilt and shame, is like having a built in speed bump, helping to slow me down. I can look within… introspect… and reflect; on what I'm doing and how it's impacting others and myself. I can then make the effort to change and live in harmony when I notice mistakes and Mis-takes; embracing honesty, open-mindedness and willingness to live with deeper integrity.


The wholistic practice and approaches to human-beingness, supporting letting go of bi-polar extremes of toxic guilt and shame based-living, gave me permission to let go of the defensive driving I was doing against my past experiences. Frankly it was exhausting as shit carrying that toxic-baggage.


The sense of fear and impending doom dropped out. I began to travel lighter. It was easier to smile. I stopped thinking and feeling perpetually less-than. It was easier to be more present. I being being more physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually available; more comfortable inside my skin. There was the sense of having the scarlet letter “I,” branded on my forehead that stood for “Insufficient person,” assimilated, integrated, and healed. There was more inward and outward coherence. In my direct experience, the ”Unipolar…” middle Way being which is sustainable. In This Way, if we give ourselves to our practice with completeness… it might be easier to be happier in our heart and mind. Please confirm for yourself.


一We Are the Practice Itself

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