Our self-esteem can be strongly connected to how well we can separate what we do from who we are. Getting to be comfortable with distinguishing between feeling guilty and feeling shame is key to this. We need to learn to hold ourselves accountable for harmful things we do without labeling ourselves as Evil People. Personally, I had to do a lot of unlearning of a shame identity to get to this place.
Lessons from Theater
When I was an actor, it was pretty normal to say to a director that what I was being told to do on stage was not what my character would do. I was the one who lived and breathed with this character and knew that he would never speak that way to his friend, commit that questionable act, or yell at his partner. A good director would patiently listen and then tell me to figure out why my character would do that.
It was infuriating.
Another lesson was in10th grade reading Macbeth for the first time. I had a teacher who focused on how Macbeth went from being a seemingly good guy, to (spoiler alert) committing mass murder. The capacity for just about anything was in just about all of us, was the takeaway. That took the judgmental wave out of my sails–and scared the crap out of me. Recognizing what any of us were capable of.
And I was in acting school when a teacher told us that our job when watching a play was to find a way to empathize with every character on stage. You see, I thought we were supposed to analyze the story, the decisions the characters made, and eke out the moral or themes.
Basically, it was having these experiences steeped in theater, long before therapy school, that pushed me toward empathy and compassion and away from a shame identity.
Surprised By People I Don’t Like
This can be a bit annoying. Because I often want to put someone in a neat category of good or bad person (especially the bad category.) It’s unhelpful when someone I decided I didn’t like due to something (or somethings) they did surprises me by being caring and generous. This doesn’t mean they become my best friend, but it means that I usually feel a twinge of guilt for sticking them in the Bad Person Group and not acknowledging their full humanity.
It goes the other way too. People I love, respect, and rely on can do things and say things that I find deeply hurtful. And the people who care about me the most are also the ones who tell me when I do or say something that’s hurtful. Our relationship lets us do that and helps it grow more intimate.
The thing is, it’s during these times that I can really see my own growth that when my behavior is called in (especially by people who love me), I spend less time having a shame identity and have the more helpful feeling of ‘guilt.’
The Antidote to a Shame Identity
I know, I know, no one likes feeling guilty, but that’s the point. My guilt is just uncomfortable enough that it pushes me to not do that thing again. It makes me reflect on what I did that hurt someone and how much I don’t want to do it again.
In the past, I went right to shame and shame does something a lot nastier to us. It tells us that we are a Bad Person and that’s why we did the Bad Thing. If my behavior is my identity, then I might as well just give up. I could never do better. But it’s just not true and it doesn’t help us do better next time. Shame is so difficult to feel that we often end up doing something worse just to avoid feeling shame or being shamed by others. It’s a terrible cycle.
Shame turns us inward, makes us feel like failures, and takes away all hope that we can be loved–in fact, it tells us that we shouldn’t be loved, so we’ll constantly be acting out toward people who do love us.
Compassion is the antidote to shame and the sad truth is the more we feel shame, the less we feel that we deserve compassion. But don’t forget, compassion doesn’t give us a pass. It doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves accountable, it just lets us know that we are worthy of love and will not be defined by an action. It’s less harsh and more productive than shame or punishment.
Sam Blum quoted me about this idea for his article for Lifehacker: How to Separate Your Identity From Your Behavior (And Why You Should) if you’d like to hear what he, and some other therapists, have to say on the subject.
If you’d like to talk more about this or something else that you’d like some support with, please contact me and we’ll set up a free phone or video consultation.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He practices counseling in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity and can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion.