For those of us who have committed an act of domestic violence, how we think about what we’ve done has big implications on how we respond. Feeling ashamed won’t help. Feeling guilty is healthy. It may seem like these two statements contradict each other, but the difference in meaning between shame and guilt is important. Let me explain.
Feeling ashamed won’t help. Feeling guilty is healthy. The difference is important.
Shame is an overall negative feeling about the essence of who we are. It is a sense of being worthless, fundamentally flawed, or unlovable. Shame says, “I am a bad person.” Guilt, on the other hand, is discomfort from doing something wrong. It is a feeling that we’ve broken a rule, hurt someone, or violated our own standards of behavior. Guilt says, “I did a bad thing.”
Shame feels hopeless because it is too late to change how we’re made. We feel helpless and stuck with who we are. As a result, we are more likely to withdraw from others, fall into depression, or medicate our pain with drugs or alcohol. None of these make life better for us or anyone else, of course. In fact, they only add to our woes.
Guilt motivates us to avoid that negative emotion by not repeating the action that led to it.
Feeling guilty, on the other hand, leads us in a different direction. The uncomfortable feeling motivates us to avoid that negative emotion by not repeating the action that led to it. Since the focus is on our actions and not on our essence, it is easier to take responsibility. It frees us to seek forgiveness. It motivates us to change our behavior. All of these are positive steps and take us toward restoring our sense of wholeness.
Answering your voice
What if the voice in your head is more shame than guilt? Shift your thoughts from “I am a bad person” to “I am a good person who did a bad thing.” Telling yourself you are bad or irreparably flawed will keep you stuck. And, it is a lie (see below).
Then, force yourself to pursue non-romantic relationships with other people. Spending time with a group, especially others who are at a similar place of healing and change over this issue, is a particularly safe place to connect. Volunteering or joining people who share your interests (hiking, yoga, motorcycles, a book club, etc.) is another way to develop relationships. Churches can be a great place to connect with others while growing your spiritual side—something we think you’ll find very helpful. As an introvert, I know how hard it can be to seek out and join a group. I also know first-hand how glad I was later that I did.
Guard yourself from others’ shaming
Hearing how others talk about domestic violence and not feeling shame was one of the most challenging parts of my journey. This was true if it was someone who knew I hit my wife talking directly to me, or if it was just reading about domestic abuse on the Internet or in a book. Most of the messages are shame-based: “real men don’t hit women,” “what kind of a-hole would do that?” and so on.
Labels related to domestic violence are shame-based, too—abuser, batterer, perpetrator—because labels define a person rather than describe their actions. Whether it was said specifically or just implied, the hopeless messages were that I would never change. Maybe you’ve heard these, too.
The hopeless messages were that I would never change. Maybe you’ve heard these, too.
Hopefully you’ve noticed we at the Ananias Foundation take a very different approach. We really try to avoid using shame-based labels and messages. Rather, we talk about “those who cause harm” and focus on the action, not a person’s character. You will not, however, hear us say that abusive behavior is okay, because it’s not. You should feel guilty about your actions, but not ashamed of who you are. We’re here to help you change your behavior so others can see the good person inside.
If we change the message from shame to guilt, we move the possibility of transformation from hopeless to hopeful.
One of our long-term goals at the Ananias Foundation is to change how society talks to and about those who cause harm. If we change the message from shame to guilt, we move the possibility of transformation from hopeless to hopeful. Honestly, however, that goal is a long ways off. Until then, expect to hear a lot of shame-based messages from others. Don’t believe these messages. Do your best to let them roll off of you like water off a duck. You are a good person who did a bad thing. Change is possible.
I was not eager to go to church after I hit my wife. Surely God judged me as one of the worst of all sinners for what I’d done. I wondered if there was a lightening bolt with my name on it coming in my near future. I was surprised, then, when I learned that God loves me (and you) unconditionally, regardless of what we’ve done. Really? Really. He created you and me in his image. We are his masterpieces. Any other message about who we are (shame) is a lie.
However (I knew there had to be a catch), while he always loves us, he may not always like what we do. God doesn’t like abuse (and other sin) because it hurts one of his other children and it hurts the person who commits the sin. This is what a good father should do: love his children unconditionally, but not like the things that hurt them. If he took any other position, he wouldn’t be good.
God perfectly models the difference between shame and guilt.
It turns out that God perfectly models the difference between shame and guilt. As for questions about our inherent value, he has unconditional love. Feelings of shame are not from God. As for questions about our actions, he has boundaries to protect us. He allows guilt to guide us back inside those limits.
For more on this topic, check out this post from Brene Brown.