I am no angel. Over the years of navigating my own course through the uncharted waters that is gaysian adult life (my only out role models being BD Wong and George Takei), I have taken many missteps and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so.
After coming out, I came to understand the freedom that queers inherit after breaking free from this heterosexist society. Not only had I become free to explore my attraction to men, but I also came to realize that there were very few expectations foisted on me regarding marriage, children, and even career path. That freedom allowed me to choose a life of exploration and experimentation.
Freedom’s rewards are great but its consequences can be painful and bitter. In the pursuit of a fulfilled life of love, sex, family, friends, comfort, good times and a satisfying occupation, it can be so traumatic and oppressive when the drive to get what you can out of life betrays you or someone else by overstepping some boundary.
Having been ejected from my life as a door-to-door Christian minister, I’ve had to re-create my system of values while juggling the constant pull of my mind, body and heart.
Despite my intentions to be well liked, respected and on the right side of things, I have suffered the shock of having to confront my capacity for greed and selfishness. My mistakes have cost me my pride, several relationships, and a lot of humiliation. I have experienced, first-hand, the prison of guilt.
My mind has caused me to say the most insensitive things for some critical, egotistical satisfaction. My heart moves me to take risks, which sometimes causes agony and despair. My body craves pleasure and sensation to excess. And spirit? I desperately relied on a higher power to restrain my demons and urges but found that I also lost my self-worth and dreams.
In the constant struggle to find balance, we are destined to slip up.
Guilt’s sentence is a recognizable pattern that starts off with denial or disbelief. Likely, you can relate to the hours, even days, spent in a catatonic stillness, as your mind tries to answer the questions why and how, all the while replaying the incident in a futile attempt to travel back in time to make the transgression disappear.
After it becomes clear that history cannot be changed, the resulting frustration and anger make us look for someone to blame; this is when the shame sets in.
Shame is the result of the anguish we feel over our flaws. However, the danger in focusing on our flaws and punishing ourselves is that there is no third party (or second for that matter) to advocate for mercy. Some get trapped in this stage for years to the point that they feel they deserve to remain subdued, fucked up, hated, degraded, out of the picture or forever labeled a loser.
Rather than let the anger and frustration make you a victim of shame, it’s important to let these feelings motivate you to action. If you’re following along with the Kubler-Ross model of the five stages of grief, this would be a mixture of bargaining and acceptance. In order to accept what’s happened, you have to be able to confront the victim and take responsibility.
However, it’s been my experience that this, unfortunately, isn’t always an available option. Buying a shot denied by an old friend, unanswered calls and text messages to a former lover, a sudden look away meant to ignore a friendly nod; I have had to acknowledge that my weaknesses have at times been too much for some friends to handle.
The only satisfying deal you can make is the one you make with yourself. The only way out of guilt is to serve the sentence by acknowledging what you did and apologizing to the victim. Regardless of the outcome, trust that they will get the help they need. Taking ownership of the event means finding out why it happened, understanding what you wanted, and why the victim’s needs were so easily ignored.
It’s not an easy task admitting your weaknesses and understanding your motivations. There are professional counselors available at varying costs so that you don’t have to do this work alone. It can be humiliating to have to look at your flaws but we all have them. Allow this humiliation to have the positive effect of giving you patience and understanding with your fellow human.
Some say guilt is a useless, negative emotion. They say it is pointless to suffer over what has passed and can’t be changed; that guilt is a comforting way of avoiding responsibility by spending your time in isolation, punishing yourself, rather than fully accepting your actions and moving on.
As an emotional response, I believe that guilt is a very useful sense that can motivate us to impart forgiveness and understanding to others.
Shame, on the other hand, has no place.
American author John Bradshaw points out the difference saying, “Guilt is the feeling that you’ve made a mistake, shame says YOU are a mistake.”
No matter what you have done, so long as you are alive you have the potential for growth, compassion, joy and heroism. It’s important to take responsibility for your actions, but while acknowledging your weaknesses, remember that it is our weaknesses that bond us all together as humans and they make our moments of grace that much more meaningful.
Life is not to be wasted with shame and self-loathing. By having the strength to learn and move on you are giving the world a greater gift.