Walking the Path: My Interfaith Journey

A Pagan seminarian's perspective on faith, theology, and facilitating interfaith dialogue.

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Ruminations on the Soul: Guilt and Shame

I've taken some of my group material I used as a Chaplain Fellow with my PTSD and substance abuse program veterans and modified it here as blog material. I feel the content and message of the material is universal enough that it needs to be shared, even if the context is different. I hope you enjoy.

"Well baby I've been here before
I've seen this room and I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew ya
And I've seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah..."

"Maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah..."

I believe there is a crucial discussion we should be having with each other on a regular basis: and that discussion includes what is the difference between guilt and shame, and why is shame so toxic to our sense of self and to our society. There is a distinct difference between the two even though they are misconstrued quite often.

Guilt: a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined. Another simple way to explain guilt is: Guilt is the uncomfortable feeling we often experience when we have done something wrong

 Guilt is based on a failure of doing – (which is usually a direct result of our behaviors and choices)

 Guilt involves a violation of standards Guilt can be positive and at times it is even necessary-

 Guilt can be a motivator for positive change – In other words, when we do something wrong, then we feel guilty about it, those feelings can motivate us to change our behavior so we don’t make the same mistake or negative choices

 Guilt is based on values, morals, and standards, all of which are necessary and important with regard to guiding people’s behavior in a positive direction When looking at guilt as a violation of standards, it is important to think about the following –

 Whose standards were violated?

 Where did these standards come from? (Our family, our experience, our beliefs, peer group, society, media, politics, our own ethics, etc.?)

 Remember, one person’s standards can be very different from another’s which can result in very different ways people experience (or do not experience) guilt

Shame – Is a basic feeling of inferiority. Shame involves the perception of oneself as a failure or feeling unacceptable to others. Shame can involve feeling “flawed” “unworthy” or “not good enough” Shame often involves forgetting or disregarding the fact that we are human and we make mistakes but that alone does not make us less of a person. Shame is about self-blame and is directly linked to low self-esteem. Shame most often comes from the negative messages we may receive as children from our family of origin. (People who were put down or insulted as children, either directly or indirectly, may end up much more prone to shame-based thinking as adults) Irrational thoughts and beliefs can fuel shame and inappropriate guilt – These untruths can perpetuate negative feelings we have about ourselves –

 I must get everyone’s approval

 I must be perfect

 Mistakes are bad

 If I am not like ________ then I am not a valuable person

 Everyone can see my faults

 I am not worthy of forgiveness

(B. Brown) “Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection." --B. Brown, Daring Greatly

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

 (John Bradshaw) “To be shame-bound means that whenever you feel any feeling, need or drive, you immediately feel ashamed. The dynamic core of your human life is grounded in your feelings, needs and drives. When these are bound by shame, you are shamed to the core.” 

― John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You

Shame is rampant and pervasive in our society in so many ways. We even shame different genders for different things. Men cannot cry, or be perceived as too feminine, or anything outside of the hyper-masculine angry macho model. Women are shamed for their bodies, their opinions, their choices, and many other things. We are shamed for not living up to others' expectations. We are ashamed because we have internalized that we are not enough. We must recognize that this toxic shame is slowly killing us from the inside out. It is killing any chance of happiness that we will ever have. The first step to recognizing our need for healing is to accept our brokenness. As a metaphor for this process, I've offered the Japanese art of Kintsugi:

Kintsugi: The Art of Mending Broken Pieces with Gold & “Wabi-Sabi”

In Japan, instead of tossing broken pottery pieces in the trash, some craftsmen practice the 500-year-old art of kintsugi, or “golden joinery,” which is a method of restoring a broken piece with a lacquer that is mixed with gold, silver, or platinum.

The kintsugi method conveys a philosophy not of replacement, but of awe, reverence, and restoration. The gold-filled cracks of a once-broken item are a testament to its history. Shimode points out that “The importance in kintsugi is not the physical appearance, it is… the beauty and the importance [that] stays in the one who is looking at the dish.”

Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It's simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent. 

Can you begin to see the beauty in the broken pieces of your own life, as you put them back together in your own way?

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Denora is currently a full-time wife, mother, and chaplain. As an eight-year veteran of the United States Air Force, her professional career has spanned network administration, performing presidential support requirements and veteran military funeral honors in Arlington National Cemetery, and executive communications support for the Secretary of Defense, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Denora has an undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Central Florida, an MA in International Relations from St. Mary’s University, and a Master of Divinity degree from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO. She has completed one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education with the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD and has spent a year as a chaplain resident with the Mountain Home VA Medical Center in Johnson City, TN and as a Mental Health Chaplain Fellow at the Lexington VA Medical Center in Lexington, KY, specializing in trauma, substance abuse, and PTSD. She is an active member of Circle Sanctuary's Military Ministries team and the Lady Liberty League Military Affairs Task Force.

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