Lockdown and the last 6 months have highlighted something really powerful to me. So many high achieving women that I’ve spoken to recently have described how powerful being forced to stop has been, but in stopping, they’ve connected with a sense that something is missing but aren’t sure where to go from there. On the face of it they are doing well at their careers, have families they adore, but there is something stifling their joy and when asked so many have told me that they feel…guilty.
Guilt appears to creep into every aspect of their lives, from fleeting thoughts, “Did that joke come out more cutting than witty? Or to more consistently nagging aches, “Am I spending enough time with my children”? Every act of superficial self-care is seen as a reward; “I’m treating myself to a manicure”, and time nurturing the self appears to be a total anomaly unless we are in a mental health crisis.
At this point I think it’s important to draw a clear distinction between what is ‘shame’ and what is ‘guilt’ because the two are often closely associated. And the reality is they are both feelings with deep meaning.
What is shame?
Shame is an emotion that arises when we judge ourselves at our core in a negative light. For example, we may have had certain traumatic experiences that leave us with a deeply negative sense of ourselves, and we may view ourselves as ‘weak’ or ‘bad’.
What is guilt?
Guilt is an emotion that arises when we judge our behaviour or actions in a negative way. For example, if we were late for something and let somebody down then we may feel guilt for not considering the impact our behaviour may have had on another person.
Why does the difference matter?
It’s important to distinguish between shame and guilt because they influence your behaviour in different ways. Guilt can motivate you to make amends, apologise, or correct a behaviour. Doing such things will help alleviate guilt and may increase the extent to which you feel positive about yourself. In this way, guilt can be a helpful emotion. Shame is not productive; it silences and isolates us. For so many of us it’s as though ‘guilt’ has become corrupted by shame, and it seems as though we have no confidence in just being, with every exchange and decision doubted and held to close personal scrutiny.
Oftentimes we can adapt who we are according to the relationship we’re in, and we’re sharing only what we feel will be accepted by others. But in committing to this way of being, we deny our true selves and we miss out on developing any sort of intimate connection. What’s more those feelings of guilt and loneliness are held within us.
Listening to your ‘true voice’
In overcoming guilt we must first consider why we feel so ashamed of our needs….we are ashamed of our passions, our ambition and our strivings to be all that we can be. We are even ashamed of basic needs like time to ourselves, or enjoying what may feel like trivial hobbies when others are struggling. Much of our healing comes when we take a step back and begin to notice the part that we’re playing in our own lives (that is, to make the unconscious conscious). So many of us are living with a persistently critical and unkind internal voice. Life has become something that we are trying to ‘get through’ from one day to the next, as opposed to something we are approaching with a full and joyful heart. This ‘unwell voice’ criticises us for how we look, sound and behave. It undermines our achievements, sabotages our enjoyment of experiences and consistently leaves us feeling inadequate and less than.
It is this same unwell voice that persuades us that we are not worthy of support and that it is us that is the problem. It encourages us to hide huge parts of ourselves from others because it is fuelled by fear, guilt and shame.
When we can identify the critical narrative that we have been living by, we can begin to strengthen a ‘true voice’. A voice that champions our instincts, articulates our needs and validates our past experiences. If you are able to recognise that past events or relationships made it challenging for you to have a voice or to trust yourself, then honour that truth by acknowledging it, even just to yourself. It is time to move away from denying, rationalising, ignoring and minimising the ways in which your voice was silenced. Take a moment to acknowledge that these experiences wounded you on some deep level.
When we awaken to the presence of the unwell voice it can be a little disconcerting. The process of strengthening a compassionate internal narrative can feel a little laborious early on but it gets easier, trust me I’ve been there. By challenging your shameful feelings about yourself and focusing your intention on what you want instead of what you don’t want, you’ll start feeling stronger. As you become better able to recognise or predict how the unwell voice will respond to certain situations and scenarios, so you’ll be better able to prepare a response from your well voice.
If you struggle to work out which voice is which, next time you have a thought, ask yourself: Is this thought leading me to be unkind to myself in some way? Your unwell voice is directing you to both harm and punish yourself emotionally and physically (and it is actively discouraging you from acting in your best interests).
Self-punishment, self-destruction and self-harm can all take many different forms. Here are a just a few examples:
- Emotional Harm: Talking to yourself in a way that makes you feel sad, lonely and worthless. Telling yourself you don’t need time to focus on the things that are important to you whether it be your business, your health or your passions.
- Physical Harm: Restricting food, over exercising or denying yourself adequate sleep.
- Harmful actions: Maintaining relationships with abusive people, acting out sexually or lying to people.
Remember: the unwell voice is not a trustworthy moral guide. It is a destructive force that has taken residence in your mind and body but it won’t go away just because you will it to. Learning to tolerate the unwell voice without reacting to it is one of the biggest first steps you can take and will serve not only to weaken its power, but is the first big step to feeling a bit lighter from feelings of guilt and shame.
Cultivating and strengthening a compassionate ‘true voice’ will enable you to:
- Approach the world with a sense of calm.
- Build intimate relationships with yourself and others.
- Know that your thoughts are just your perspective and not necessarily reality.
- Connect with your creative self and to play.
- Forgive yourselves and others.
- Accept criticism without internalising the views of others as your own ‘truth’.
- Become empowered and embracing the highest vision for yourself.
So many of us are living day-to-day with a profoundly negative narrative about who we are and that isn’t just guilt, something has shifted way beyond a ‘helpful reflection’ and into deeply negative thoughts or feelings about you not being deserving and this should always be acknowledged.
So, next time you want a manicure, or to take some time for yourself, perhaps reframe viewing that as a treat or reward. It’s a personal need important to you and your wellbeing….and that always deserves attention.
Where you can find me
About your author
Emmy Brunner is a Personal Empowerment and Transformation Coach, Psychotherapist,
CEO of The Recover Clinic London, Author of Trauma Redefined and Find Your True Voice, Founder of The Brunner Project and Speaker with more than 20 years’ experience in trauma and mental illness, across both the business and clinical worlds.
You can find out more about Emmy and her business here.
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