Guilt, Shame, And A Little Grass Skirt

Let me tell you two stories from my childhood.

Story Number One

When I was very young, maybe five years old, the community pool my family belonged to decided to put on an event called the “Water Ballet“.

In Water Ballet, the older girls of  the community (including my sister) instructed the younger girls (including me) in a choreographed dance/synchronized swimming routine.

The culmination of Water Ballet was a recital, of sorts, that we put on for our parents and, of course, any other community members who wished to see our performance. So, just our parents. I imagine the woman who conceived Water Ballet pictured us cavorting Esther Williams-style around the community pool to the delight of a huge and appreciative audience.

 The theme for our Water Ballet was “Hawaii“.

The costumes for our performance, manufactured by our mothers, were “grass” skirts made out of burlap cut into strips and tied around our waists. We wore our grass skirts over black bathing suits.

On the evening of the big performance, we got dressed in the locker room of the pool. I looked at all the other little girls. Their grass skirts consisted of burlap cut into many very thin strips, which barely covered the bottom of their bathing suits. My grass skirt hung to my knees, and the burlap strips were ominously wide.

Did we miss the memo? I worried that maybe we should have had a dress rehearsal.

Not only did I look different from all the other girls, when we jumped into the pool, my grass skirt became a heavy, sodden mess. Since I was only five and without hips to hold up this suddenly weighty apparel, my grass skirt tended to slip down around my ankles.

I spent the rest of the dance holding my soggy grass skirt in place.

As we finally, mercifully, made our exit, I heard sniggers from the audience as I passed.

Story Number Two

There were a lot of kids to play with in the neighborhood where I grew up. My best friend, one year younger than me, lived three houses down.

We were inseparable. We played together all day, ate dinner at each other’s houses, and had sleepovers at least once a week. We even called ourselves “The Sisters“.

Like most sisters, we also did our share of bickering. Nothing serious – we both had sunny dispositions – but frequent.

Once, our bickering (over a tetherball game) escalated into a full-blown fight, complete with slaps and hair-pulling. In the melee, I kicked my friend and hurt her. Tears came to her eyes. Incredibly, rather than apologizing, I made fun of her for crying like a baby.

I felt bad after both of these incidents – the Water Ballet fiasco and the fight – but bad in different ways.

BBeargTeam, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My purpose for telling you these stories is not to inflict torturous recollections of my childhood upon you, but to illustrate a point.

I have been reading Brene Brown recently. In her books, Brown spells out the difference between guilt and shame: “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, ‘I am bad.‘ Guilt is, ‘I did something bad.

In the first story, I felt shame. Not only was my costume a disaster, but in my mind, it was yet another example of how I just did not fit in.

All of the other little girls somehow knew how to dress, what to say, how to act in lock-step with each other. I was always the oddball on the outside looking in and I was ashamed.

In the second story, I felt guilt. I had really hurt my friend, whom I loved and who was younger and smaller than me. I eventually did apologize, was forgiven, and never again fought with her. Oh, we still frequently argued, but it never again escalated into a brawl.

Guilt is not always a bad thing. It ultimately helps us live in society by pushing us to change unacceptable behavior. It might not be a comfortable feeling, but it can be instructive.

Shame, on the other hand, makes us want to change who we are. It makes us feel unlovable, unsuitable, unworthy. It shines a very bright spotlight on our perceived shortcomings and failures. It is always destructive.

Guilt is easier to come back from than shame. It is possible to change a behavior. Overcoming feelings of guilt can teach us self-forgiveness. We can learn to give ourselves grace. We discover how to consider the feelings of others.

I should have, could have, and did change my behavior regarding the fight.

Shame prevents us from accepting forgiveness. When we feel shame, we believe we are undeserving of grace.

One more thing.

Shame tends to isolate us. White-hot shame makes us feel as though we do not merit love and acceptance. The way to overcome shame is through empathy and forgiveness. Empathy releases us from our self-isolation. It allows us to give ourselves validation.

Eventually, as I got older, I realized that being an oddball was not a bad thing. In fact, by the time I reached my teenage years, it was one of the things I was most proud of. I didn’t have to be in lock-step with the crowd to be accepted. My friends loved me for the goofy, nerdy person I was.

I got over the shame of the grass skirt.

But I still remember it.

You can find the places I link up here.

 

 

121 comments

  1. “Shame tends to isolate us.” Nailed it. I spend so much time calculating how I don’t measure up. Even when doing something positive and fun, I’m never good enough. And then I draw away from others. They say the most important step is understanding the problem. I’ve known this for years, but I move forward at a snail’s pace. The whole burlap skirt thing seems pretty ill-advised from the start. PS – Based on your writings, you seem like the most ‘together’ person I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do the same thing, Jeff. Understand the problem but move forward soooo slowly. I get it! At least we are moving in the right direction.

      I think the burlap skirt thing was an accident waiting to happen. I am just lucky I didn’t get dragged to the bottom of the pool and drown!

      Thank you for the affirmation.

      Like

  2. Shame and guilt, as you’ve so beautifully described them here, are two very different animals. I have incidences from my childhood, too, where I can recollect both of these all to clearly. Thankfully, we can outgrow shame, but we should always listen to guilt when we’ve wronged someone else, and be quick to forgive them and ourselves.
    Blessings, Laurie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never thought about how different they are until I read Brene Brown’s book. I think you are exactly right, Martha – we can outgrow shame. God gives us the confidence to do so. Blessings!

      Like

  3. Good illustration of the difference between guilt and shame. I tend to experience shame easily and have always had a very difficult time forgiving myself or accepting grace. Which is interesting, because I have taught for 15 years and have always loved my students unconditionally, even while helping them to change difficult behaviors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think accepting grace is something we have to learn. At least some of us. I taught for over 30 years (I am now retired) and I understand completely your feelings about your students.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Certainly remember the water ballet, but don’t remember the grass skirts or Hawaii I remember using the record “babes in toy land”

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent post — we all have those cringe-worthy memories from childhood, but they’re what allowed us to figure out a few important things about life. Guilt does teach us not to do the bad/harmful thing again. And I’m not so sure shame is always a bad thing, if it teaches us empathy. What I am sure of is that people who feel neither guilt nor shame are people from whom it’s best to stay well away.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are right, Jan. I think to have empathy, you need to have suffered. Guilt/shame does make you suffer. And I would definitely stay away from a person who has no guilt or shame!

      Like

  6. Gosh you were hard on yourself weren’t you. I realise the purpose of using the situation to relate to the book you just read but Shame is such ‘nasty’ word, I prefer embarrassment. Shame has all those other feelings connected to it – long lasting, hard to recover from. To me that was an embarrassing situation – something I’d probably never live down but it wouldn’t be as soul destroying as Shame
    Take care
    Cathy
    #lifethiseeek

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are right, Cathy. Shame is a nasty word. I think most people will hesitate to admit to shame. Just like hate. It’s not something we want to associate with ourselves. Just the fact that I remember it nearly 60 years later makes me think the incident was significant to me! 🙂

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  7. Laurie, hi! How wise of you to talk about the vast difference between guilt and shame. Without understanding how they impact us, we often continue to confuse the two of them and aren’t able to move forward with confidence in who God shaped us to be.

    And yeah, I’d feel the same about the skirt.

    {sigh}

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This really resonated with me. I too felt that I didn’t fit in as a child. I had a similar experience except it was a ballet performance. My mum had to attach fabric flowers to my tutu and she didn’t like the small ones supplied to her. So my flowers were ginormous and made me stand out like a sore thumb! At the time it made me feel out of place which I felt a lot growing up but now the memory just makes me think of my mum. She always made me feel special. Regards, Christina

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It is amazing that a small incident in your childhood sticks with you and hits a sore spot after all these years, but at that tender age, you want so badly to fit in with everyone else. Then we get older and want to be different. I, too, had a best friend who lived next door and her name was Linda Crosby. I have written about her in my blog. Like your friend, she was smaller than me and ery bossy. She and I would argue all the time, but still were best friends. We were devastated when her father, a traveling salesman, was transferred to another territory, not in Ontario and we parted ways, never to see one another again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was just talking to Bill today. I can remember stuff from my childhood, but I cannot remember the names of colleagues I worked with only 4 years ago. Why is that? I guess fitting in becomes less important when you develop some self-confidence. I wonder if you could find your childhood friend on Facebook.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The brain is incredible sometimes isn’t it? I did a post back in 2015 ago where I connected with a woman who had stood beside me in kindergarten (1961). I was on a public Facebook site for our elementary school. I had not scanned in any of my photos yet, but she had scanned in the class photo of our class (which I ended up using in the post and which I also have). So we went through the names of each of the kids … I remembered at least half of them, first and last names. I was amazed as I never kept in touch with those kids and we moved here to the States when I was ten. It was fun doing that. I have looked on Facebook for my childhood friend but she has a common last name – her name is Linda Crosby and there are lots of Linda Crosbys. She likely is married by now or may not still use her maiden name.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Wow! You have an amazing memory, Linda. I might be able to recognize some of my kindergarten classmates, but I would struggle to recall most of their names. I have had that issue on Facebook too – tried to look up someone who has a common name without luck.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It was fun reminiscing … and Maggie and her siblings (a brother and sister who are just a few years apart) were/are active in the E.A. Orr Elementary School group. So I sent Maggie (whom I knew as “Margaret Rust” but now goes by her married name) my blog post and she posted it on this Facebook site and that stirred up a lot of comments. I was hoping that I might have connected with Linda Crosby, or maybe two other childhood friends there, but nothing came of it. Some people use their maiden name in parentheses and I found one person that way, but it was an unusual maiden name.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, so cool that you got some blog readers from your former classmates. Some of my friends use their maiden names as their middle names too. Sorry you didn’t connect with the friends you really wanted to. Maybe it will eventually happen.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Laurie – my post today is a reflection of what I learned from Brene Brown too – she’s got so much wisdom to share with those of us at this age and stage. It’s interesting the lessons we learn as we grow older and wiser and how things still stick in our head from childhood but can be rationalized differently with time and experience. There are many similar stories from my childhood too and they taught me to hide my light under a bushel. It took many decades to lift the lid and let my light finally shine – but it’s never too late to bloom!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I think most of us have similar stories from our childhood where we felt shame for being different in some way and standing out in the wrong way. Those stories are a good way to illustrate the difference between guilt and shame. Shame is such a hard thing to overcome, isn’t it – I agree that guilt is easier because we can change our behaviour but shame cuts through to who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be. Empathy and forgiveness is so important to help combat that. #MMBC

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you are right, Louise. Most of us had to learn some painful lessons about fitting in. A little empathy – especially for ourselves – is welcome.

      Like

  12. I’ve always felt like a bit of an oddball throughout my life too – I’m definitely way more comfortable in myself these days than I used to be, though social anxiety still plagues me – I still care too much about what others think of me! #MMBC

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I was thinking just this morning about pulling out some of Brene Brown’s books! This is confirmation that yes, I need to go do that. During this year of pandemic, my mental health has suffered and I’ve seen more shame seep in than I have in a long time. I love your two examples here and I want to just hug that little 5 year old in her long grass skirt. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This is an eloquent statement on areas that we often confuse. Love both the stories. I often felt shame as a young child as I was a shy, quiet little girl who often felt out of place. Guilt I still feel when I look back on life at some of my young foolish actions. #MMBC

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Carol. I think we all feel guilty about some of the foolish things we did in the past. I certainly do. I am learning to give myself some grace.

      Like

  15. These stories are such a moving way to illustrate and contrast shame/guilt…may we all have compassion for our own tender selves in our own versions of little grass skirts. Or knee-length burlap versions.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Your two stories illustrate this point perfectly! I bet there is not one person (well, normal-ish person) who hasn’t experienced both shame and guilt at some point in their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. As I was reading this, I couldn’t help thinking about the 10 second rule which seems similar in terms of time. The idea is that you shouldn’t point out something to a friend, if they can’t fix it in 10 seconds. You can change a behaviour (smudged makeup/ tucked in skirt) almost instantly, but shame (something more sensitive) takes longer to come to terms with/alter. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of shame and guilt. #mmbc

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have never heard of the 10-second rule, but it makes a lot of sense. That shame must have stuck with me for a long time. I still remember the incident all these years later!

      Like

  18. Great illustrations…thanks for sharing. Isn’t amazing how emotions can still be evoked after all those years? I can think of stories of my own that would work well as illustrations. I’ve learned from the emotions for sure – but I certainly can still feel them. Sigh!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Thank you for this post. It will send me back to reading “The Gifts of Imperfection” I have been reading it so slowly some days and then not at all. I haven’t found her as easy to read as I hoped, but not giving up. You do a good job of helping people recognize the difference and applying it. I can give you a pastor’s reason for understanding shame too. Although you may know this. The Jewish culture at the time of Jesus, and maybe not just Jewish had a very strong practice of honor and/or shame. Pretty sure it plays into a lot of stories in the NT, especially the Gospels. As to the grass skirt, I took one season of tap and ballet lessons when I was 5, but my mom pulled me out before the recital. Had something to do with my not having a very ballerina like body. Go figure! Blessings, Michele

    Liked by 1 person

    • I must admit, I liked “Braving the Wilderness” better than “The Gifts of Imperfection”. I did, however like both and found a lot to think about in both books. I did not know about the Jewish culture having a strong honor/shame, focus, but it makes complete sense. Blessings, Michele.

      Like

  20. Yet another beautiful post, Laurie.

    I guess most of us have memories of our childhood when we felt shame for being different.

    Even at 59, I still care too much about what other people think of me!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think you are right – we all felt like the odd person out at some point in our lives. I care what other people think of me too. We are all just works in progress!

      Like

  21. Happily for me and my emotional growth I found Brene back in 2015. “She” has accompanied me on long car trips via her CDs, I have read and re-read her words, and taken part in a couple of her paid on-line workshops. She now has two amazing podcasts and they can be so good for me to take in while I am doing art. However, I am, in some ways disagreeing with you “I am bad” aka shame in the first instance. You were far, far too young I think to give yourself any kind of judgement. But I also think it’s good how Brene helps us think more, and in doing so be MORE kind and self compassionate. One course I did on line was with Self Compassion researcher and expect Kristen Neff and Brene was trying to learn along side the rest of us. Brene was/is very tough on herself!! I could go on but I have more lovely people to thank for linking up.

    Thanks so much for linking up for Life This Week #231. Glad to have you add your post as part of the community here. Next week. the optional prompt is Good. Hope to see you there. Denyse.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I read my first Brene Brown book last year and LOVED it. I liked the one I read this year, but not as much as Braving the Wilderness. I will have to check out her podcasts.

      I don’t think I considered myself “bad”, just unable to fit in effortlessly like all the other girls did. The course you took sounds awesome! I got the impression Brene is pretty tough on herself.

      Thanks for hosting, Denyse. Hope to see you again next week.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Laurie – I love these two stories as they truly illustrate the differences between shame and guilt. I am so grateful our Lord is able to free us from both as we come before the Cross. And I so want to hug the little girl in the grass skirt and let her know she was the bravest girl of all to persevere to the end!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, so true, Joanne. I am grateful for the grace given to us by the Lord too. I would love to go back and give that little girl a hug too! 🙂

      Like

  23. That’s a good distinction. It’s a blessing we can repent and be forgiven of what caused the guilt and move on. Shame is harder to deal with, I think. It’s funny, I ended up kind of out of the main social circles, too. I never had a problem making friends in elementary school. We moved when I was in jr. high, and I was pretty friendless for a long while (I don’t think jr. high is anyone’s best time of life…). My mom had to almost push me out of the car to go to school. Finally in 8th or 9th grade I made friends with one girl. That high school was the most cliquish place I have ever seen, with distinct groups. Somehow neither of us fit in with the others, but we had each other. I’ve always been inclined to one or two close friends rather than a whole posse, anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think junior high is anyone’s best time either. I’m glad you at least had one good, true friend in high school. A good friend is so welcome. Much better than a posse.

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Laurie, what a great reminder of the difference between guilt and shame. I’ve lived with both. and when they weren’t dealt with, they became paralyzing in many ways. I love what you shared here, and the stories to go with each emotion. What you said about shame is true. It made me want to change who I am (or was when I was dealing with it). I’m so thankful for a loving Father who helps me remember I am created in His image and that He made me just as I am for His plans. So that means there’s no reason to let shame shape me.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. May I add- guilty is a legal term (we are guilty of sin, and we need to be forgiven in the heavenly court). Shame is a FEELING. We can feel shame, whether we are guilty or not. Sorry for the grass skirt!.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Perfect stories for illustrating the points between shame and guilt. I have learned a lot from Brene Brown. The distinction between guilt and shame is so important to know and to teach our kids.

    Burlap grass skirts had me laughing, and I can only imagine burlap in water. This story reminded me of being on a church youth cheerleading team. We made our skirts from a pattern our leader picked out. And they had to be modest, a slight bit above the knees. We practiced and practiced and then showed up for our first competition. Let’s just say all the other skirts from the other church youth cheerleading squads grazed the bottom of their panties. And they were all store bought. And their routines had swaying and hip wiggling (something our leader said we were not allowed to do). Boy did we feel out of place. And just like you, the memo was never delivered to us.

    Being weird and not fitting in, though, made me a stronger person who is not easily influenced by peers and fads.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I enjoyed your posts on shame a few months ago, Theresa. You have such wonderful thoughts on the subject. Love the cheerleading skirt story! You are so right – not fitting in has made me a stronger, more empathetic person.

      Liked by 1 person

  27. It is interesting now, as a a great-grandmother to think about how what happens in the first decade of our life often (too often?) informs the next … four, five, …. (good grief) seven in my case! (Just the fact that I can even remember anything that happened back that far …good or bad … says something!)

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Ah Laurie! How do you do it?
    Again I find myself challenged to unpack what you so lovingly & charmingly bring home to us with your very personal and heart-warming stories. Neither are easy concepts and unfortunately, all too often experienced. Their power to hold us in thrall is all too great; hopefully understanding them better will help us to move on.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Laurie, I could feel the embarrassment and shame of the pool incident. It took me back to those childhood times when you didn’t want the spotlight on you. Of it shone on the what you hoped to hide. I appreciate how your stories clarified the difference between guilt and shame. I think guilt can easily turn to shame. I’m thankful Jesus takes care of both.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are so right, Deb. I never wanted a spotlight on me when I was a kid! I am thankful too that Jesus takes away our guilt and shame. Undeserved grace, but welcome just the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  30. As humans, most if not all of us experience both shame and guilt, even briefly, at some point in life. Thank you, Laurie, for sharing your stories and insight with #WeekendCoffeeShare.

    Liked by 2 people

  31. Laurie, these two anecdotes from your young life explain the difference between guilt and shame very well. It took me longer than you to become comfortable with being somewhat of an oddball, but now I’m grateful for it (and for those around me who also politely decline to fit into anyone’s else’s mold). 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  32. I really enjoyed both stories and the explanations that follow — I think they were perfect illustrations of the concept of shame vs guilt. I never considered how they could be similar yet different feelings. Looks like I have another book to add to my “To read” list…

    Liked by 2 people

  33. Funny how things from our childhood stick with us. On the outside they seem insignificant, but in our minds they are huge. I have many and sometimes they just pop up out of nowhere, both the good and bad. The difference between guilt and shame was well written. We all need to learn the difference. Thank you for linking up.

    Liked by 1 person

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