In joy, we know that all hearts desire to be whole. Wholeness requires authenticity. Authenticity comes from one’s heart smiling back at being them. This is how you know you are being wholly you.
So, what then are we to do about experiences of guilt and shame?
People feel that the guilt and shame that they experience are authentically their own, and therefore that the responsible thing to do is to psychologically own them as a means to say that they are sorry for their actions. And if those individuals actually did something to someone else, then the holding onto and psychological processing of their guilt and shame would be the responsible thing to do. It would also be the path of healing and therefore growth necessary for the development of their own soul. However, if that person did not actually do anything to anyone else and they are wrongfully holding on to said guilt and shame that somebody else projected onto them, then they will find themselves in a rather dark and endless pit of rumination.
Remember that guilt is something that one would naturally feel if they enacted an offense against somebody else’s heart. Corporate mindset definitions of guilt do not differentiate between guilt being real or perceived. However, this is a critical misrepresentation of what guilt truly is.
Hearts are designed to experience guilt as an indicator that they have done something that is not only not in accordance with their own heart but has also caused an offense to somebody else’s heart. Consider it more like an alarm system or an invisible perimeter around your heart that says “Ah! You’ve gone too far.” Guilt is more like one of those invisible fence collars that keep your dog from running out into the middle of the street. So, if you hold on to guilt that does not stem from an action that you actually engaged in, be it physical and/or cognitive, then you will wrongfully set a boundary at the perimeter of your heart and thereby restrict the freedom of your heart’s expression. This is why misplaced guilt can be so incredibly dangerous.
Now, for most people what is actually going on is that other people around them are projecting their guilt onto them. In other words, people who actually engage in wrongful behavior often try to rationalize their behavior by projecting blame onto someone else. In dysfunctional families, for example, you often find that a father will blame the wife for being too much of a nag, when in fact he hasn’t done the small but needed chore that he promised he would do for months. In this scenario, it is the husband who is actually experiencing some sort of guilt around not having done the chore that he promised a loved one he’d do. But, for whatever reason, it didn’t get done. One option available to him is to simply own that, and sit with his discomfort for not living up to his promises, and thereby perhaps find a path to resolving his guilt and possibly even bring levity to his own heart and, in turn, create more space for him to actually do the thing that he said he would do. But, instead, he projects his disappointment in himself onto his wife.
Similarly, you will find this between parents and children. A parent may have an unresolved trauma that seems too difficult for them to process and instead of addressing it will ask the child to behave in a particular way that protects their heart from ever having to confront that trauma. The child is then shamed if they are not able to behave in accordance with the way that would make their parent feel safe. Clearly, as a parent, the offering of safety is supposed to go in the other direction. No child should be burdened with the physical, psychological, and/or energetic protection of their parent. Especially when, in most cases, the child was not even yet born at the time when the parent experienced the very trauma that they are asking to be protected from. However, given many of the cultural norms required by various communities (in the name of survival) the asking of children to participate in, the protection of their parents and/or the culture, as a whole, is often dangerously normalized. This is actually a primary pathway through which intergenerational trauma passes. As children who are asked to protect their parents, and/or their culture, would then naturally feel guilty for engaging in the very thing that their heart may desire to do as a part of their own authentic growth. So, as a result, what would normally be a pathway of joyful evolution instead gets weaponized as something that is selfish and harmful to others. Guilt is often used as a mechanism of holding people “accountable,” when it really is simply a matter of fear-based control and traps all parties into a trauma bond where there will be little, if any, growth. This is clearly not a pathway of joyful evolution for there is no breath or light for anyone to grow from, parent, child, culture, or community.
Shame, like guilt, can have productive value. But shame can only be used as an effective mechanism to indicate that somebody is engaging in something that is harmful to themselves and/or others when a true act of harm has been perpetrated and one is actually speaking to the person whose heart committed that harm. It is worth stating here that this is not a mechanism that is to be enacted in an all-or-none manner. It can often be the case where one heart may be responsible for 60% of the harm because they actually are the perpetrator, while another heart is responsible for 30% because they helped the perpetrator, and yet another heart is responsible for 10% because they chose to say nothing and simply watched the harm occur. This truth and nuance are critically important but have been widely misrepresented and misunderstood in our broader society with legal conceptions of guilt and innocence. It is in fact the case that to silently participate in the enactment of harm works against not only the heart of the victim/survivor but also the heart of the perpetrator for having done something negative, and is a harm in and of itself. Thus, all hearts in that situation are to be held accountable, except that of the victim/survivor, for all the right reasons lest they will all be trapped by they enactment of said harm. In this case, the victim/survivor will also have to do their work to recover fully, but their work is not to be done through the lens of guilt and shame because they actually did nothing wrong. Their work is to psychologically and energetically remove that harm from their own pathway of growth. In other words, the work is to give it back to those whose hearts actively, or even passively, participated in the harm in the first place. This is true at the individual, familial, community, institutional, and societal levels.
Consider, for example, that you run a newsletter where you feature notable leaders in your industry. If after dozens and dozens of such features, one of your readers points out to you, either kindly or perhaps not so kindly, that you have never featured a person of a given background, be it race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or what have you, are you being shamed? Not necessarily. In a world in which one feeling shame is often taken as the other person intending shame, the intentions of the heart deeply matter. The person who brought the oversight to your heart could have done so as an invitation for your heart to grow. Kind of like, hey did you know that there is an opportunity to highlight more leaders? There is no indication of distress and/or the humiliation that so often lead to shame. However, just like the border fencing of guilt, your own experience of shame could be informing you that you have done something that, perhaps, you might feel shameful about. And that could come from within, meaning the voice of your own heart, or it could be informed by past experiences of shame.
It is critical to breathe into your experience of shame to name center and honor what is coming from the voice of your own heart and what is coming from the critical voices of others, past or present. If it sounds like it is your heart speaking to you it is important to separate that feeling from past experiences of shame being projected on to you to give space and therefore separate the critical voice of others from the loving voice of your own heart calling you into awareness of your own opportunity to grow.
Engaged in with a healthy heart, the resulting action is not to become defensive, unless someone is truly projecting their shame onto you. From a place of gratitude for being called into an opportunity to grow, the rationale action is to simply thank the reader for bringing this to your attention and do better in facilitating a more complete representation as you move your newsletter forward. It is in this way that shame can be very productive indeed and does not in any way have to be another instance of anyone shaming you like your mother once did. This instance not being another one of those instances can give you breath. Learning to respond to the call of your own heart to grow offers more breath. Growing promotes even more breath. This is how you, we, can breathe into the normalized patterns of how growth and shame are used.
Navigating The Toxic Energy of It All
The normalization of shame and guilt as control mechanisms has made navigating the emotional entanglement of toxicity that spreads from its rotten roots rather difficult. Remember, guilt and shame are internal mechanisms of the heart that are helpful in calling leaders into setting healthy boundaries. Navigating the constant projections of guilt and shame through brain energy will only further entangle one in it. It must be navigated through the heart; each leader fully in their breath and honoring the voice of wisdom from their own heart cultivating the very foundation upon which they can more clearly hear the voice of anyone around them. When in the heart it is so easy to see that the guilt and shame that others are projecting onto you are more about their pains and someone else weaponizing shame and guilt in them than they are about you. Let’s take a breath to unpack all of this through heart energy.
Even on an interpersonal level, it can be easier to trace the toxic energy that comes from guilt and shame, often because it’s easier to trace who enacted the harm, who conspired with the person who caused the physical, emotional or energetic harm, and who said nothing. Like on the playground, Sandy, hit Tyrell but we can all see that Sara was the one who pressured Sandy to do it while Randy and Elsa stood back and watched it all unfold. Where many leaders can struggle is tracing all of the toxic energy (emotional entanglement) of guilt and shame as it meanders throughout the community into institutions where it connects to social harms.
A Couple of Truths for Clarity’s Sake
- Families cannot overcome intergenerational trauma by burdening the next generation with the responsibility of protecting them in the name of anything. Doing so actually entrenches them in the original trauma and makes it ever more difficult for the family to ever get free.
- Communities trying to overcome struggles enacted against them by others cannot do so by trying to prove their innocence to their perpetrators. Dong so psychologically tethers and energetically ropes them to the original perpetrator of the toxic energy, giving the perpetrator even more control over the resolution of the harm in the long term. This is true unless it is clear that the perpetrator of the harm against them is the original root of corruption.
- Institutions are responsible for ensuring a healthy workplace and therefore are legally accountable for the ways in which the mechanisms of guilt and shame are used to motivate their leaders, by any individual and/or the organization as a whole. Not honoring this requires forces leaders into survival mode and only ensures that the hearts of leaders will never be free.
- Societally we are accountable for the ways in which we engage in (including the avoidance of) and or let others continue to use guilt and shame as mechanisms of control. Discounting our own wisdom about this diminishes the voice of our own hearts calling us into our individual and collective growth.
Altogether Now, BREATHE
Putting this all together it is easier to trace and discern who is responsible for what and what work each heart is being called into. However, even as we do so the real opportunity is to still be curious about and ask who shamed and guilted that leader such that they would ever use it against anyone else. We must begin to ask this question to truly unravel the toxic energy and address the harm at its root.
Even for a parent who abuses their child, emotionally, physically, and/or energetically who must be held accountable for their actions, we can ask the question of who taught them not to listen to the wisdom of their heart. Not doing so allows the toxic energy to continue to remain unaddressed in the family dynamic and thus never be fully resolved. At the institutional level (as organizations are simply communities of leaders) a narcissist, or an abusive leader, may harm the hearts of many, and yet it still must be asked who taught them to use their power to manipulate the hearts of others through shame and guilt. At a societal level, the same example could be used. A sociopath or a corporate con artist may harm the hearts of many, and still, it must be asked who passed on such toxic energy that their hearts are unphased by the harms that they cause themselves and others in the name of money and success. And even after that is answered, we ask what system gave them such power that taking the love and the breath of others was ever seen as a productive pathway of engaging in the world, in the first place. Evil must be named at its root in order to be rendered powerless. So, questions must continue to be asked to free humanity from the shame and guilt that is corrupting the power of our collective hearts from the inside out.
When we begin to see all of this clearly, it is in this way that we find breath beyond guilt and shame.