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Overcoming Shame and Guilt: Unpacking it and Changing Your Narrative

By Lisa Marlin

Even with its promise of fresh starts and new beginnings, the New Year does not erase traumatic experiences and memories that we’ve carried with us through the years, the ones that wake us up at night. But what if we could replace them?

Recently, in the middle of the night, I was woken from a recurring regret from years past. I had volunteered to organize a work-related fundraiser that coincided with my daughter’s high school game in town. As a single mom, I couldn’t afford to take time off from work for most away games. This specific game was a big chance to see her play locally – and I missed it.

Ten years later – yes, a decade has passed – I lie in the dark and think, again: What if I had left the fundraising event early? My daughter has never asked this; in fact, she understood my prior commitment and said it was all right, not to worry. And yet it still bothers me.

Quieting the taunting voices

Honestly, it’s only one gnawing memory out of countless others that wakes me, and even when I’m going about my day, it can stop me in my tracks... “You’re doing all right now,” a taunting voice whispers in my head, “but don’t forget what you did or said or didn’t do or should’ve said when you were 30, 21, 13”.

While I can’t go back in time and be at that game, I can remember times I did show up for her. When the missed-game memory wakes me, I can choose to replace it with a positive memory, such as when my daughter needed a break from her weekend studies, and we took off on a spontaneous drive through the mountains with her siblings, a bag of snacks and a road trip playlist.

Remembering I can do better because I have done better

I can apply this to almost every negative thought. Instead of feeling shame for spending too much money over the holidays or regretting something hurtful I said, I can remember the times I have stayed within my budget or spoken affirming words.

By acknowledging that I can do better because I have done better, I can stop dwelling on what can’t be changed and change what I can: review my budget and stick to it, or take the time to speak to my friend and apologize.

Pivoting from a shameful memory towards a more positive one is liberating for me. It often leads me to recall more affirmative actions or positive associations than mistakes and regrets.

Unpacking my baggage

When I do this, it’s like having a bulky suitcase – the older kind without wheels, crammed full of shame, guilt and a hundred “What ifs?” that I’ve lugged around for too long – and then opening it to remove what I should never have packed in the first place. The following is my top 10 list of thoughts to unpack:

  1. Fears that limit me
  2. Regrets: What if I had done or said (fill in the blank)?
  3. Grudges I hold
  4. Past relationships that hurt me
  5. Childhood wounds
  6. Worrying about things I have no control over
  7. Thoughts that keep me up at night
  8. Bad memories that crowd my mind
  9. Negative self-talk
  10. Internalized shame and guilt

Words that motivate

When I’m feeling alone, disappointed or like I could use a friend’s words of advice, I find inspirational quotes can do wonders to help me change my mindset. I’ve discovered the following few quotes for when I need a little motivation to unpack.

“If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is to be present in the present…. Gratefully.”

Maya Angelou

“There will always be people who are more than willing to give you another serving of guilt. Remember, you don’t have to accept everything you are given.”

Kathy Radigan, The Special Needs Nest

“What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.”

Brené Brown

“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.”

Christopher Germer, PhD

“You should only ask ‘What if?’ looking ahead and not ever backward.”

Me, because I deserve a good night’s sleep. 😊
Written by

Lisa Marlin

After receiving her degree in Journalism, Lisa began her professional writing career as a television and newspaper reporter where she was often assigned the human interest beat to cover education,…