Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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When the Going Gets Tough: Be Kind to Yourself!

When the Going Gets Tough: Be Kind to Yourself!
Coping with Guilt and Shame

The old saying "When the going gets tough;The tough get going" congers up images of a soldier with a sucked-in stomach and a stiff upper lip. But, instead, why not be kind to yourself? An earlier article in this publication entitled "Self-Care" discussed the positive advantages of meeting your own needs and living a balanced life. I fully endorse these recommendations and suggest that you consult that article in the Reading Room of my website. This article focuses in on perhaps a more difficult task, the problem of being kind to yourself in problematic situations when the going really does get tough: when you feel mortified about mistakes, disgraced or dishonored, humiliated with guilt or shame caused by transgressions or embarrassing personal characteristics. With distressing thoughts circling around in your head, re-picturing the awful scenes, it certainly is hard to find joy in your life. The stiff upper lip may make you appear stalwart on the outside but won't assuage the pain from the cauldron of thoughts boiling inside. I'm going to offer you advice about reframing the problems so you can live with the results, actually being kind to yourself and then being able to find peace and happiness in your life.

A key word in this discussion is compassion. You may have compassion for others, for children, for animals, but why not have compassion for yourself? You deserve compassion as much as others deserve compassion from you. Hopefully you will see my point immediately. If you don't, if you are stuck in guilt or remorse about your shameful qualities, read on so that you can learn to feel love and compassion for yourself.

Let's start with a situation where you make a mistake. The first step is to view the situation accurately by focusing in on the facts and not making negative self-judgments. Some incidents occur when no real harm is caused, for example when you might slip and fall and feel embarrassed in front of others. This is not an actual mistake, and should be dealt with as suggested in the guilt and shame paragraphs below. An actual mistake may occur when you cause damage to something or someone. Try to analyze the situation and understand what actually happened and the consequences of your error. Do not berate or punish yourself because this does not solve any problems. Go directly to the next step which is to rectify the wrong and provide appropriate compensation for any harm that was done. A mistake should only be fixed once, and the compensation should be reasonable for the damage done. At this point you should feel proud of yourself for doing the right thing. Whenever you think about the mistake, feel proud that you are the type of person who is brave and honest enough to step up to the plate to correct wrongdoings.

Should you apologize for a mistake? Yes, apologize once and sincerely, but realize that an apology is often not sufficient compensation for harm or damage. In fact some people go through life blithely apologizing for their behavior but never really attempt to fix problems or change for the better. An apology should acknowledge the mistake you made and the pain or damage done to the other person and offer reasonable restitution. An apology should not be self-serving as when you attempt to explain away the problem or run yourself down in an effort to attract sympathy.

Let's discuss shame and guilt. Many people think that these feelings are virtuous and result in moral behavior. However, guilt and shame are extraneous negative feelings which actually detract from the main goal of rectifying errors and providing restitution. The real solution to guilt is described above: to analyze the situation in nonjudgmental terms and correct any harm that has occurred. Whenever you feel guilt or shame, ask yourself whether you made a mistake or did anything wrong. If so, you can feel honorable, proud and moral after you rectify the situation. The only contribution made by guilt and shame is to magnify the bad feelings in the situation, possibly cause you to feel disgraced and dishonored (none of which help the situation or correct the wrong) or actually contribute to your avoiding the situation by procrastinating, self-medicating, and so forth in an attempt to diminish the negative feelings (none of which help the situation or correct the wrong.)

What about shame and guilt about personal characteristics or other private information you are not proud of and may attempt to conceal from others? Again, consider whether a mistake has been made. If so, you can learn to find relief in correcting these mistakes. If no mistake has been made, your internal critic is likely the culprit and you can consult the articles on self-esteem to find assistance in curtailing these unnecessary negative thoughts. Also realize that everyone has private and personal information which can be kept confidential and does not need to cause shame or guilt.

Much more could be said and written about this topic. The stiff upper lip contingent is usually too rigid and inflexible to cope well with the pitfalls of life. The bottom line is learning positive self-care, being kind and compassionate to yourself and by so doing finding balance, harmony and peace in your life.