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How to avoid toxic feelings of guilt and shame

As I begin writing this, I feel incredibly guilty and shameful. I won't list all the things I feel guilty and shameful for, because even I don't know, but I know a lot of it has to do with my abandoning the home and religious community I grew up in and not being there for my family, causing them worry and pain. They try so hard with me and I constantly push them away.

It's not all the time, but these feelings come often, usually after any sort of interaction with a loved one. It's like the nicer my family is to me, and the more gifts they buy for me, the guiltier and more ashamed I feel. It seems silly and irrational, because it is. People wish they could have loved ones like mine and yet I'm still running away from it. I even feel guilty and ashamed for continuing to write this blog post, by the way.

Sometimes I just want to disappear, preferably in a gruesome way so that somehow the pain and gore of it would somehow make me the victim and absolve me of all guilt. But of course I would never disappear myself. God, never. That would be selfish toward my loved ones and much too shameful, and I don't think even my corpse could carry the burden of guilt and shame that would follow me if I did that.

When I think about how to help others avoid guilt and shame while doing so myself, I think about all the times I have felt decent and proud, and try to pinpoint what led to those positive feelings. I also did a bit of research for myself, and came up with a few ways to avoid toxic feelings of guilt and shame. It's not comprehensive or anything, but it helps me. Here's what I found:

1. Try to recognize where those feelings are coming from and why.

The first step is doing research. If you know and understand the reasons for your guilt, you're one step ahead of everybody else. Ask yourself what you did that deserves guilt and whether at the time you did the deed you had the option of acting differently.

Every egg's got a chicken, and chances are, if you have feelings you can't even explain they were embedded in you from childhood. Try to understand as much about your childhood as possible. Meditate. Write down what you can remember. See a therapist that might be able to help you retrieve suppressed memories.

Ask yourself what you've done that deserves so much guilt and shame.

2. Rethink your mindset about what you did.

Uncontrollable guilt and shame are feelings of death. I can assure you that nothing you did deserves death. And if it does then just don't bother reading this article because it seems like you might actually enjoy the self-loathing and emotional martyrdom. This article is for people who choose life.

By the way, not choosing life won't make you any less guilty. People who choose life also make better choices, and those better choices help feel good about themselves.

If you want to avoid feelings of guilt and shame, you've got to accept that there is nothing you could have done that justifies choosing death. You've got to make an active decision to nix guilt and shame from your life, because those feelings are both unhelpful and destructive, just like whatever actions you may have already been feeling guilty about.

3. Hold your parents responsible.

Look, I'm not telling you to blame your parents for all your problems, and I'm not telling you to go to their house and shout them down and wake up the neighbors. All I'm saying is that you need to recognize that they came first, not you. They were the ones who brought you into this world, and they were the ones with the duty to protect and nurture you, and that includes your feelings, and they were the ones who, for whatever reason, were unable to give you what you needed.

Guilt and shame are learned feelings. Parents and teachers are the ones who teach us right from wrong, and they're the ones who teach us to feel guilty or shameful for certain actions and behaviors.

Most parents want the best for their children, and all parents make mistakes (some more than others, obviously.) But that doesn't mean that we're going to start blaming ourselves for the way they trained us to feel. And that doesn't mean we're going to redefine parental responsibilities, especially if we plan to have children ourselves.

4. Spend time around people who are loving and accepting.

During development, you may have been around very critical and judgmental characters; people who, like you now, are prone to constantly criticizing and guilting themselves and others. But the fact that you were so affected by the negative influences around you is a good sign. That means you can change some of it by changing your environment.

By surrounding yourself with people who are more forgiving than you are, more accepting than you are, and more self-loving than you are, you will automatically feel less guilt and shame, and perhaps learn from them how to love. Loving yourself and loving others are two sides of the same coin.

Your parents and teachers may have been your most integral influences, but you have control of a whole life of influences ahead of you.

5. Become your own parent.

When I was in high school, I read a book called All Around The Town by Mary Higgins Clark. In the book, a troubled girl breaks the different aspects of her personality into different personas as a way of coping with her past trauma. The personas she creates in her mind become so detached from one another, that they'll have conversations, and sometimes even argue. They're all her, except they're different broken down parts of her.

I've always been a pro at imagining. Ever since I read that book, I began to imagine who the different versions of Pardes would be, and what they'd be like. I don't remember all the ones I came up with, but to this day I still have active conversations between Mommy Pardes and Baby Pardes. These two characters are both me, and if you saw them talking to each other you'd put me in a looney bin.

Mommy Pardes is the responsible side of me. She's the nurturer, she's always looking after Baby Pardes, and she gets defensive any time someone makes Baby Pardes feel guilty or ashamed. She also tries to prevent Baby Pardes from doing reckless things, and even though she isn't always successful, she's still there to reassure Baby Pardes when she falls.

Mommy Pardes is usually the one who talks. Baby Pardes mostly just cries and hugs her pillow.

Sounds a bit koo-koo, right? But I don't care, because this tactic works. You can say Mommy Pardes and Baby Pardes help me stay less koo-koo, in fact. I don't remember what the coping mechanism from the book was called, to be honest, but I like to think of mine as "self-parenting." I once revealed my Parent and Child to a therapist and she was freaking astounded. "This... this is textbook in action!"

I sometimes forget I have the self-parenting tactic in my back pocket, but it really works for me, and I'd highly recommend it to others. Find your Parent and Child as I did, and learn how to self-parent. It will take time - even I'm not fully there yet - but it's the only way to fill those holes that nobody else, not even your actual parent, is capable of filling.

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1 Comment

Anthony Serra
Anthony Serra
Jan 05, 2020

Pardes, you are absolutely brilliant. Always stay sharp.

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