Shame, Guilt, Pride and Humility
Recently, I’ve had a number of opportunities to feel shame.
They come to all of us. We do things or say things we wish we hadn’t, especially in anger but sometimes out of simple ignorance or carelessness.
Like all of us, I have done and said my share of shameful things.
Shame is not always harmful. It’s an emotion we feel that reminds us to learn from an experience, to make different choices going forward. But it is not useful if it becomes chronic, if it becomes a weight around your neck that you carry, day by day, throughout your life. Then, it has mutated into its toxic cousin, guilt.
Shame can be dissipated with the humble understanding that we are all human, and all make mistakes. With the resolution to do better going forward. At that point, it is right and good to let shame go, and return to a sense of self esteem.
But guilt is truly poisonous. It gnaws at us, whispering not I did something wrong, but I am a bad person. It opens the door to the inner critic that wants us to be small and unhappy. Guilt is an utterly useless and cruel self-abuse. It does not contribute to growth. It just hangs around and creates misery.
The 4th Atheopagan Principle, Humility, is not about self-flagellation. It’s not about having poor self-esteem. Rather, it’s a caution against pomposity and putting on airs. It tells us that all of us are equal in value, including ourselves, and we should conduct ourselves accordingly.
We have every reason to be proud of ourselves. Each of us is a complex, unique and brilliant expression of the Universe. That is true no matter what we say or do, no matter how damaged we are. Truly evil people are rare, and if you’re reading this, you’re not one of them.
The opposite of humility is not pride; it is egotism and arrogance. Healthy self-esteem is an essential step in a growth path. And it bears saying that the Overculture encourages us to feel shame about things for which it is completely inappropriate, like about our bodies, our sexual desires, and our appearance.
Achieving healthy self-esteem can be very challenging. It certainly was for me. I had been told by my parents that I was evil and destructive, and thought that I was ugly and worthless. It took many years and a lot of work–including both ritual work and a lot of love received–before that changed. And a large part of that work was letting go of the enormous weight of guilt I was carrying, for actions both real and imagined.
So though the sick feeling of shame has visited me recently, I now understand that having something to be ashamed of doesn’t mean that I am Bad. It means I fucked up. I must make what amends I can and learn from the experience so as hopefully not to repeat it.
Feels yucky, though. Ouch.
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