What happens when we try to have it all? Attempting to live the dream can leave use struggling with feelings of guilt and shame. Thankfully, it’s possible to use guilt to your advantage and let go of shame.
Guilt is what we experience when we have broken a rule, done something we believe is wrong or gone against what we believe in. Our task when guilt appears is to step back and ask ourselves a series of questions. Am I making a mistake? Do the choices I’m making reflect who I want to be? Am I operating from an old belief system or is this feeling telling me something important about who I am today? The answers to these questions will then guide your next steps. In this way, guilt can be a positive part of an individuals conscience and self-regulation.
In contrast, shame is that hideaway painful feeling that makes us want to shrink down to nothing and disappear. It shows up when we do something that we fear will bring judgement and condemnation from others, culminating in rejection. In terms of trying to have it all, Professor Brene Brown of the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work says: “For women, shame is to do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat. Shame for women is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straightjacket.”
Brown studies connection and vulnerability and her message speaks of learning to live authentically, embracing imperfections. These can be scary words for those of us who have been raised to focus on achievement, success, goals and concepts of “the right way”. Many of us have been taught to think that if we achieve enough, and do things in the right way, we can somehow protect ourselves against struggle, let alone guilt and shame. But getting busy setting goals and controlling our lives – trying to have it all – isn’t the solution.
Brown talks about what it means to live as a “wholehearted” person, having the courage to be seen rather than playing along doing what we’re supposed to do and letting shame define us. According to her, this is a practice we can do day in and day out, consciously asking ourselves, am I going to show up and be me? Am I willing to let go of who I think I should be, in order to be where I am?
One way of doing this is through identifying our values and choosing to act according to them. Shame pulls us away from others – it silences us because we believe our flaws make it hard for people to love and accept us. Shame resilience is when we recognise when we have become caught by shame and can step back, speak about what we’re struggling with and ask for help. Seek out those who value you for who you are as an individual. Guilt and/or shame are likely to show up – after all, they have kept us doing what’s expected of us for a long time. But ultimately, we need to value our wellbeing above approval from others, to get our lives back.
Embrace the struggle
We often forget that life is complicated for everyone. We all work with people in one way or another: caring for ageing parents, handling different personalities in the office, juggling life with a difficult relationship while also dealing with other pressing issues. It’s normal to struggle. In some ways, the answer is simple: accept that life is hard at times, that we’ll be thrown curve balls and that unexpected events will derail our best-laid plans. But this goes against our fantasy of enduring happiness. Most of us want to make choices that will make us happy. When we picture happiness, we mistakenly picture a life of ease: happy equals easy; sad equals hard.
We forget that suffering brings about reflection, re-evaluation, and therefore a new perspective and a new way of acting. In line with the Buddhist idea that life is suffering, our greatest lessons come from our struggles. By listening to the messages of guilt and shame when they show up, we get to step back, reflect and experience a considered and conscious life. We get to define our own path. It might not be the happiest and it won’t be the easiest, but it will probably be the most meaningful.