It’s Not The Guilt; It’s The Shame

shame walk away

I remember that night that a boy told this girl that he could not make her feel guilty. “No one can make you feel guilty, only you can make you feel guilty.”

What a pretentious thing for a nineteen-year-old to say. Frigging psych majors. If you give a kid a hammer, everything is a nail.

I also recall leaving college for a quarter, shortly thereafter. I needed time off due to a cycle of Bipolar depression that just would not stop. Every conversation was like listening to words while my head was underwater. I felt like a character in a Peanuts cartoon. “Whah Whah Whah.” The clearest sentence I heard was, “If you would just stop crying all of the time.”

I love you under any circumstance

That was eighteen.

This is forty-five.

I am ready to admit, it is true. No one can make you feel guilty. You do it yourself, and you should feel guilty about some things. The kind of guilt you feel on your own.

You see, guilt is not an awful thing. Guilt can be healthy. Jung and Freud would remind us that guilt helps us to recognize when we have done wrong so that we can correct our missteps. The ability to feel guilt is an important part of our psychological development. If we never felt guilt, there may be other problems up in our noggin to address.

Guilt is not the problem; more often, our problem is the shame. Shame comes from a deeper place, a place where we feel flawed or defective. When we feel defective, we feel unworthy. This belief is not uncommon in the chronic illness community. I know from my experience that I will often tell others that I feel guilty when, I am learning, what I am truly feeling is the shame.

I recently read the following from an article about the stigma of mental illness and opening up about illness, in general.

“Opening up about any illness is frightening. You can never be sure what a person’s reaction will be, and that is scary. At some point, though, you have to trust that the people who love you will continue to love you. You’re still the same person.”

Has this been your experience when you shared your illness story or diagnosis with those you care about and need? I hear many stories, and the response from loved ones is pretty hit and miss; leaning slightly to the miss.

Why do we feel ashamed of having a chronic illness? Did I ask for this? Who asks to live with chronic, painful, often incurable disorders? Who wants this inconvenience? Does anyone like the reaction and subsequent actions of our families, our friends, or our employers? And if you are like me and have something rare like Ehler’s-Danlos Syndrome or tricky like Lupus we have GP’s that have tried to diagnose us to no avail. Did you know that lab tests do not come back faster if you call a doctor over and over? — wait.

I just started shame-baiting myself. Did you notice that? I am going to call it that, “Shame-Baiting”. That long list of people I was so worried about inconveniencing?The list of ways that I “bother” people?  I just worked myself up into feeling guilty, then feeling the shame and embarrassment over what they must all think of me.

I shame-bait myself constantly for being sick. I beat myself silly for things that are not my fault. There is not a single thing you can blame me for since the day it all started that I have not blamed myself for — twice. I have apologized for my genetics! As a result of that; I am an emotional basket case. I am going to guess that you do that same thing. It is like a recipe. You begin with some guilt, you add the daily spices of inability to do what you want to do or what your friends and family want to do until you have a nice pot of shame simmering away on the back burner.
Socrates QuoteAll it takes is a comment. A certain glance from that person you love and respect, the one you were hoping would hug you. Instead, you got that passive aggressive bullshit comment that turns the heat up on that pot; now baited, the shame starts to bubble.

I cannot remember the last time I heard one of my friends express guilt and shame for getting the flu, or having a heart attack. So, why are we different?

How you respond to this, what you do now is your choice. You are going to have to choose shame or acknowledge that this was not your choice. If you choose the latter, you build from there. I do not consistently make the best choice here. There are times when my skills fail, and I find myself feeling guilty. Ok, feeling ashamed.

I may need some help here.

Yes, I am asking for help. That is a big deal for me.
Choosing to not take the shame-bait can be our moment of Chronically Awesome victory! Sadly, this often is where we stumble. Why? I think, perhaps many of us have trouble at this point because we look through the rearview mirror. When we see what was, and what cannot be, again we mourn. What would be more productive is to look forward to the new road that illness has taken us down. What has happened is change. Change is hard and we may see the changes as failures. We may believe we are being judged. If the shame we feel is the perpetual mourning of the past it is time to look forward. Mourning what is gone is normal, but we cannot mourn forever. We cannot feed the shame, we cannot bait that shame trap inside of us. We need to look for what is new on this road we were plopped down upon.

We are setting a new course. We have to change up our strategy when the new hand is an unexpected hand. But, the cards you don’t expect are not the cards of failure, they are just different.

Those who love us will not judge us. (If they do, give them this blog) Not only that, we have a new community, the Chronically Awesome Community. We must support one another, we, the Chronically Awesome, must reach out and find one another and create that bond across long miles made close in our electronic world. We must love ourselves, all of us, though often we are our own worst critics. Learning to not taking the bait is where the Chronically Awesome Community needs the help of each other.

How do we support one another when we contend with such a weighty issue? Shame is like 100 pounds of lead on your shoulders being guarded by those flying monkeys wearing the tasseled fez. (Creepy, right?)

no shame

Do not accept shame. Be your strongest self. We are thrivers, we are survivors, there is no need for you to fight against yourself. Do not take the bait.








featured image via




donate origHelp support the work of The Chronically Awesome Foundation. Helping those with ANY chronic illness by keeping the lights on, the servers running, and the podcast blaring helps us to support the Chronically Awesome when they need us the most. Support Groups, individual counseling, and upcoming programs can only happen with your tax deductible help. Donate or join today!