The soul-searching of Elul can be healthy and productive. It helps us to get back on track. It can provide the push we need to resolve unfinished business. It can allow us to start the new year with a clean slate and a clean conscience.
One way to get off track, though, is to get confused about the difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt is the fact or state of having committed an offense. The feeling of guilt is useful: it’s a feeling of responsibility for having done (or failed to do) the deed in question. It might include remorse at the behavior in question. Guilt says “I did something” or “I neglected to do something.”
There are a lot of jokes about “Jewish guilt” but those jokes are not really about guilt. They are about shame.
Shame says, “I am a bad person because X.” Shame wracks the soul and can twist a psyche into a pretzel. Shame is not useful, although people try to use it on each other all the time. Shame may or may not be connected to a particular deed; it’s misery connected to a person’s sense of him- or herself.
Shame is paralyzing. Shame denies the possibility of redemption or change.
Shame requires healing. Part of that healing may be to deal with guilt over things that we have actually done. (See article about the cure for guilt.) The rest of the healing requires a healing of shame about things that were not our doing: things that were done to us, things that were said to us, things that were out of our control. We human beings like to think we’re in control of everything, so some of the healing comes when we acknowledge that we don’t control as much of the world as we’d like.
This Elul, as you do the work of this month, pay attention to your feelings. If you notice that you are in extraordinary pain, or if the list of things to repent seems endless and overwhelming, consider seeking help: a trusted friend, a counselor, a therapist, your rabbi. Elul is for making ourselves and the world better. Sometimes that happens by letting go of shame.