Navigating Through Negative Emotions (by Jeff S. & Megan C)
On the heels of Megan’s post about waves of false guilt (found here), she and I (Jeff S) began a discussion about the various permutations of internal negative feelings over our behavior. A therapist I heard once categorized these into three categories, which we think are helpful to define and identify: Embarrassment, Guilt, and Shame. These progress from surface level to very deep in the core of who we are. Below we split “guilt” into two types of guilt true and false, giving us four different categories.
Embarrassment (Jeff S): Embarrassment is negative feelings about our actions that sit right at the top of who we are. If negative emotions were an iceberg, these would be the tip that you would see (with guilt and shame being the emotions below the surface that are hidden from external view). Embarrassment is momentary and often involves a very outward reaction (flushing of the cheeks, a sheepish smile) and is quite noticeable to people who watch us. Embarrassment is what happens when you are caught in a lie or something you’ve done that you wish people did not know about is exposed. While these things can lead to guilt or shame, embarrassment alone is not something that will generally lead to a change in behavior or long term ill effects. We are caught, we flush, and we move one hoping everyone has forgotten about the moment.
False Guilt (Megan): False guilt produces feelings of shame when there actually is no sin involved. As a girl and on into my young-adulthood, I was over-loaded with false guilt. When I was 19, one of my sisters said this to me: “You’ve changed. I used to look up to you. Now, you’re all different . . . the way you dress is different. I don’t know what’s happened to you.” Now, I realize that what had happened was that I was blooming into young womanhood and this sister seemed to have a problem with that. But, I felt guilty. I asked her forgiveness . . . . for . . . what? These kinds of conversations went on for years. I could never pinpoint what it was I had done but the guilt was overwhelming. What kind of person must I be if I was constantly doing the wrong thing but did not know it? Abusers are particularly adept at using false guilt to control a victim. Manipulators are very dialed into the conscientious man or woman. Making one feel guilty for no good reason is an under-handed, sneaky sort of sin. False guilt can arise when a spouse makes a husband or wife guilty over anything to do with the children, guilty for not caring enough for the abuser’s pride or ego, wanting to get out of a marriage that is abusive, defending oneself against abuse, standing up for oneself, and so so many other scenarios. The worst kind of false guilt is when one person uses/twists Scripture to control another. Of course, we know this as spiritual abuse. The best defense against false guilt is to remember to put on the belt of truth. Ask ourselves, “Have I really sinned against the Holy God? Am I guilty before God?” And go from there. We must protect our minds from the lie of false guilt. Sadly, it is almost everywhere.
True, Moral Guilt (Megan): True, moral guilt is felt when we actually do sin before the Holy God. A follower of Christ will feel this genuine guilt keenly. It is not confusing. Repentance will come quickly as we realize that we have offended the One who died for us. And then a fresh rush of determination as we fight against the sin that had momentarily overtaken us. We love Jesus; we want fellowship with Him; we cannot live continuously in sin — we just cannot. When we are attacked with false guilt, the question must be, “How have I offended God? Or have I even offended Him?” We do not offend God by defending ourselves against abuse. We do not offend God by divorcing an abuser. We do not offend God when we make moves to protect our children. Or when we fall to pieces because we are being brutally emotionally abused. We do not offend God when we are exuberant Christians. Or when we bloom and grow. We offend God when we fail to love Him . . . and others. And leaving your abuser is not failing to love your abuser. Leaving your abuser is loving God, yourself and your children.
Shame (Jeff S): What is the difference between guilt and shame? In the definitions we are using, guilt is a negative feeling about actions that we have committed, whereas shame is a negative feeling about who we are. Or to say it differently, guilt is feeling like we’ve made a mistake while shame is feeling like we ARE a mistake. This is a huge distinction, because as a Christian there is no true shame- we may rightly feel guilt for something that we’ve done, but if we understand truly who we are then we know that we are people who are worth being loved by a holy God so much that he died for our sins and transformed us into new creations. Of course that is the way it is supposed to be, yet so many survivors deal with feelings of shame. I think that part of dealing with that false guilt is saying “no” to the shame and saying “yes” to the new creation God has made us to be. This means recognizing that there is nothing to feel negative about in our identities and that Jesus has dealt with it all at the cross. Easier said that done, though — and I wouldn’t want to “should” any survivor about feeling shame. But even if it’s hard to get on an emotional level, we can take comfort that for the true Christian, shame is a lie — we are not intended to feel negatively about who we are.
We feel it is important to be able to differentiate among these feelings. Whether we are “in the thick of it”, in the “fog”, having just left an abuser, trying to leave one . . . we are hit with emotion after emotion. Navigating through these emotions can be wearying. They were for us. As we reflect on the descriptions above, hopefully we can see that these are very different emotions, and that while guilt and embarrassment are closer to the surface (and therefore more manageable), shame is something that is VERY deep. When people take actions to shame us they don’t just cause us to flush and have a momentary hickup- they are attacking WHO WE ARE. They may pass it off as a slight embarrassment that we should “get over”, but it is a far greater assault than that. In fact, shame is one of the major underlying roots of some emotional/personality disorders- this should tell us the stakes are high when it comes to identifying and dealing with shame.
Hopefully, this will help us all to realize what is truth and what is not, thereby clearing up the fog a bit, and relinquishing the lies to the pit, back where they belong.