A Journey Beyond Shame: How to Swap Gratitude for Guilt
Somewhere in our healing journeys, we all reach a crossroads. We find ourselves standing at that point in the trail where we have to decide if we are going to set up camp and hang out a while, perhaps turn back, or venture further into the wilderness.
I spent a good part of the last year marching ahead and clearing the brush of what was holding me back. I released some old narratives that kept me chained to feelings of fear and self-doubt. I changed my relationship to alcohol and ritualized some positive habits, like regular meditation. I started saying “yes” to new things in my life and stepping through the doors that opened.
As I entered the new year, I set intentions for what I would love to attract into my life. But I was so focused on pouring energy into what I wanted to manifest in my life that I almost forgot the other part of the equation. Creating what we desire is not just about getting clear on what we want and focusing our intention and attention there, but it also requires getting clear on what is holding us back or might lead us astray. Blasting ahead without that self-examination and self-alignment is like trying to run in quicksand—the more you fight it, the faster you sink.
Sitting with Shame
I asked myself: What are the lessons I have yet to learn? What is still holding me back from what I want to achieve? The answer came through a dream. In my dream, I found myself across the table from the mother of my best friend in sixth and seventh grade. She had this magical book of my memories since she had last seen me nearly 30 years ago. As she stopped at certain pictures—snapshots of me at some of my “lowest” points—I felt shame and tried to rush her past those pages or explain away what she was seeing.
When I woke up, I knew the next leg of my journey would be about releasing shame. Unlike dropping self-doubt, which can be a positive experience of translating all those “I can’t” statements into “I can do it,” releasing shame means confronting those thoughts and feelings of “I did it and I wish I hadn’t.” It means inviting back into my conscious mind those things that I have tried to forget and sweep under the rug.
For me, it meant revisiting some very painful experiences. I thought of the choices I’ve made that ended up hurting other people, the times I betrayed my own knowing and hurt myself, and things I did acting out of judgment and fear. I thought of the things that I tend to omit from my self-history when getting to know new people, like that I’ve been married three times, I dropped out of college to travel the country and eat out of dumpsters, and I have struggled with mental illness.
The feelings that sometimes arise when I think of those things are remorse, regret, and embarrassment. There is also the guilt at having done something I knew was wrong or later discovered to be wrong. Or anger as I berate myself for having made such a stupid or self-defeating choice. I also feel sadness as I mourn the loss of what could have been if I had made different choices. Underneath all that is the whisper of self-loathing that I am unworthy, that I do not deserve love and happiness because of who I have been and how I have lived.
It would be easy to turn or run away from such feelings. Most people do. But I’ve come too far to stop now. At this crossroads, I must choose the forward path.
Loving All of It
If I want to create more space in my life for the light of joy, gratitude, love, and compassion and reside at those frequencies that will attract all that I desire, I have to drop the lower, denser energies that are weighing me down. It is not surprising to me that these feelings of shame and regret are some of the last to be unearthed—they are the deepest buried and some of the most brutal to come to terms with. But I’m hoping they will also be the most liberating to let go.
For releasing shame means loving myself and my past unconditionally. As I play the reel of my life’s experiences, instead of condemning myself, I accept all aspects of my being. As hard as it can be sometimes, I thank my experiences for what they were—an opportunity to learn and gain perspective. They helped me become the woman I am today. As I learn to truly love who I am, it follows that I must be grateful for and perhaps even love all of what has shaped me, however much that makes me squirm.
We have the experiences that we need to help us learn something about ourselves and grow as souls. Our experiences help us navigate through the endless possibilities of our lives in order to find who we really are. Our enjoyable experiences point us to what fills us with joy and happiness. Our more unpleasant experiences provide a contrast, which signal to us where we are in need of a new belief or new course of action.
The other thing I realized about my shame is that it often has a strong link to the fear of what other people think about me, the fear of being judged as somehow not good or worthy enough. But who cares, really? What part of me truly needs the approval of strangers or even my family? The self-doubting part of me? Well, that part is also on the chopping block as something that no longer serves me.
The people I want in my life are those that who appreciate me for who I am, which is in no small part a product of all the experiences that I have lived. And to those who will judge me, what is their judgment based on? Some social or moral constructs that I am not beholden to and do not serve my truth? Their own fear of what people will think? Their judgment is quite literally their problem, not mine. Feeling shame over what other people may think is simply unnecessary and a waste of energy.
This is not to say that shame can’t be a useful teacher as we are learning who we are. It’s that zing that alerts us to where we’ve deviated from our core values. The trick is to learn from it, use that awareness to make future choices that better support our continued growth and happiness, and then to let it go. Shame can be a good compass to get us back on track, but it makes a lousy travel partner.
As I look at myself in the mirror, I forgive myself for all those things I’m not proud of. I apologize to those I may have hurt and ask for their forgiveness. I extend my love and gratitude to my past for creating the person I see before me. She isn’t perfect and she’ll still stumble, but she is learning, growing, and willing to keep moving ahead.