Keith, Are there specific ways of dealing with the awful feelings of guilt and shame that come over people sometimes in the middle of the night and prevent sleep, etc. Also, if one has these feelings, does it mean that he or she really isn’t committed to God?
That is a great question. I don’t know how many times I’ve wrestled with feelings of guilt and shame in the middle of the night, and wished I could find a way never to have to deal with them ever again. But I’ve come to believe that they’re really helpful experiences, warning systems for all human beings to help us to become what God wants us to be. And there is a way to work through them and learn where we may be off track concerning the way we’re living our lives.
Let’s just imagine that you have a warning system in your mind, like a burglar alarm. When the alarm goes off and you look at it, there are two panels; one is “guilt” and one is “shame.” The feeling is very similar—one of having no value, or as if you’ve been bad, are a bad person, that sort of thing. First it’s good to figure out which panel is giving me the signal: is it guilt or shame?
Andrea and I learned about these two emotions from Pia Mellody. Andrea wrote Pia’s first three books with her, and I consulted with them about connections to psychological literature that had already been written. According to Pia, in Facing Codependence, “Guilt is an uncomfortable or gnawing feeling in the abdomen about an action or thought that transgresses our value system, accompanied by a sense of wrongness. Guilt is often confused with shame, which is experienced as embarrassment and perhaps a flushed face, accompanied by a sense of fallibility.”
For example, if I lie to somebody, or steal something, the resulting feeling is guilt. If somebody saw me spill my coffee all over my lap and the floor, the resulting feeling would be shame—I’m a fallible human being who makes mistakes, and mistakes can be embarrassing. The more you think you should be perfect and never make mistakes, the more likely you are to feel shame whenever a mistake becomes known to other people. In fact, trying to avoid feeling shame about a mistake (breaking a valuable vase, or damaging a car, or getting somebody’s name wrong at a party) often motivates people to try to conceal or camouflage mistakes by lying, blaming someone else, or omitting certain facts when explaining what happened. And in some instances, if a mistake is pointed out to a person, that person may react with anger and rejection because of being in the throes of what we call a “shame attack.” So if truth telling or treating others with respect and kindness are moral/ethical values, the hiding or raging often lead to feelings of guilt—which combines with the shame, making a roiling tide of painful emotion.
Dealing with Guilt
So if your alarm system goes off and you determine that the panel giving you a warning is the one marked “guilt,” you’ll be able to recognize what you’ve done to transgress a law or value. In this case, Christianity has a very specific way of dealing with guilt. You confess to God that you have broken the rule, being specific about what you’ve done, such as stolen something or lied about something or cheated on your wife. And that’s step one. The next thing to do is to make things right with that person. If you stole someone’s lawnmower, you take it back, and say “I’m sorry I took your lawnmower. I’ll pay you if I’ve damaged it in any way.” Jesus was pretty specific about this. He said that it’s more important to handle this feeling of guilt than it is to worship God. In the 5th chapter of Matthew, he said if you bring your gift to the altar, and you remember that somebody has something against you—that you have hurt or damaged someone in some way, then you leave your gift at the altar and you go and get things straightened out with the person first, and then come back and worship God. Because if you don’t get the guilt handled, you won’t be able to really worship God. It’s that important, Jesus said. (Matt. 5:23-24)
The Twelve-Step program has a wonderful way of handling guilt. There are definite steps whereby you surrender your life to God and then you recognize you’re powerless to handle guilt by yourself, as well as any addictions or compulsions you may have. Then you make a decision to turn your life and will over to God. Then you specifically make a list of all the things you’ve done as far back as you can remember that have broken the rules, ways you’ve hurt people, cheated, lied, stolen been disloyal, and things like that. Then you read that list to another human being—a sponsor or minister. Then there is a process for going to the person you have offended and making amends. It’s very important not to harm people by confessing to a misdeed to them or their families, or business associate. But when you’ve done these steps, the guilt is almost always gone. You transgressed a moral, ethical or spiritual value, you’ve recognized it, confessed it, and done everything you could, and then you’re clear.
Dealing with Shame
If you really can’t think of any specific law or value that you’ve transgressed, then the alarm panel marked “shame” is giving you the warning. For example, when I was a kid, I used to come home from parties and often cringe because I’d think I’d made a fool out of myself. There wasn’t anything specific. I just thought I’d been too brassy or silly. I thought my nose was too big, my ears were too big. Physically I wasn’t what I thought I ought to be. It was just a feeling of “not being enough” somehow. And this feeling chases people through life even if they are very attractive and very successful.
Dealing with shame is a different process because there isn’t anything to confess or make amends about. I have come to see that God specializes in handling shame through a community of people on his spiritual journey. And it seems to involve a process done in a group based on honesty and caring love. But unless you find a group of his people who are committed to sharing their lives honestly with respect and love, you may not find relief for shame. This may be why groups based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous may have constituted the fastest growing spiritual group in the world in the twentieth century.
I got in a group about twenty-five years ago. It was a Twelve-Step group. At first I didn’t want anyone to know anything bad about me so I tried to look like I just wandered in to check the meeting out. After a few meetings I heard people say that their healing and transformation began when they started to get honest about their problems and began to feel relief. I realized that if I wanted to get well from my addiction, then I had to face my problems by revealing myself. In these meetings I heard people tell about what they had done: how they had drunk too much and lied and hurt people, what their addiction caused them to do. At first I couldn’t reveal very much. The fact that I had done so many things that transgressed my value system brought a strong wave of shame over me every time I even thought about them. And telling other people about them seemed impossible—the wave of shame threatened to overwhelm me. But I noticed that no one laughed or looked disgusted or lectured anyone else who talked about these things. They listened with a quiet respect. So I began to talk. It was sort of like pulling a thread out of my mouth, something small enough that I could stand the shame. I looked around afterward and nobody looked away. They just nodded. So at a later meeting I pulled out a little more vulnerable admission—like a string attached to the thread I had started with. And then over a period of time of listening to honest sharing in a matter of fact way, I pulled out a rope, then a chain and then a whole bucket of things I’d made up my mind I’d never share. After I’d done this for some time, I realized that I didn’t feel so bad about myself. The shame had subsided, and I didn’t feel like a bad person any more.
These people seemed to love me more when I was honest about the fact that I’m very self-centered and have had some unethical and immoral behavior in my life that I’d never faced before. And the more they found out about me as I worked through the steps of the program with a sponsor, the less I felt alienated or not enough.
Having been a seriously committed Christian for more than fifty years, it seems to me that Christianity at its best is more equipped to handle guilt but doesn’t deal much with shame. And there may be a lot of Christians who wake up at night feeling awful—shameful. They feel their children don’t love them enough; they’ve been a bad parent, or whatever. It’s a more amorphous feeling of being a bad or inadequate person, or that one’s life is going by and amounting to nothing. But these thoughts that lead to shameful feelings are often not based on reality. That’s a firm conviction that I’ve discovered in biblical Christianity—that everything God created was good.
So now when my emotional alarm wakes me up at night (or any time it goes off), I look at the red blinking light and say to myself, “There’s something wrong I need to tend to.” I ask myself “Is this guilt or shame.” Often a picture will come up of something I’ve done, which indicates the feeling is guilt. And then I know what to do. I’ll confess that to God and share it with a small group of Christians I meet with and make restitution when possible.
And if I can’t think of anything specific, I’ll recognize the feeling as shame. Then I’ll identify the thought or attitude about being less-than, or having looked like a fool or made a mistake about somebody’s name—whatever I can locate. And I’ll surrender my entire future to God again, and remind myself that we’re all sinners, or so we claim, and go to a meeting and share—or share with a sponsor or friend on the spiritual journey. One definition of sin is that we have failed to hit the mark of perfection that we’re shooting at. We miss the mark and according to both programs, “all have sinned and fallen short” of God’s best for us.
But if we don’t face our own sins as Jesus advised us to, we have obviously decided that Jesus made a mistake in telling us how important it is for us to learn how to (as James put it) “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other, so that you can live together whole and healthy.” (James 5:16)
That’s just a very brief picture of our (Andrea’s and my) experience of guilt and shame and how these things can be handled in spiritual programs like Christianity and the Twelve Steps.
Lord, thank you for your consistent love even when I take control of my life and try to make it work on my own. Forgive me for the ways I hurt others and myself (and you) during these times. Thank you for the feelings of guilt and shame that alert me to the fact that I have gone off on my own. Help me to pay attention to them when I feel them. And thank you for the loving welcome I receive when I get honest with you about what I have done and surrender to your guidance once again. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift.
– Matt. 5:23-24 (NIV)
Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed.
– James 5:16, (The Message)
“The difference between guilt and shame is very clear—in theory. We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.”
– Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace
“A guilty mind can be eased by nothing but repentance; by which what was ill done is revoked and morally voided and undone.”
– Benjamin Whichcote, Moral and Religious Aphorisms
 Page 95
 There are important guidelines about finding a trustworthy person with whom to share this part of your life.
 See Steps Four, Five, and Nine, pages (pp58-103) Alcoholics Anonymous, Third Edition.
 If you want to read more about handling guilt and shame and how if not dealt with they can lead to serious control issues and relationship breakdowns—you may want to read: Facing Codependence and Compelled to Control.