Making Amends with Guilt & Shame - This Is Us, episode 13
Even though you know what’s coming you still can’t believe it. I knew we’d learn about how Jack died tonight, but I still can’t believe it. A simple crock-pot with a switch that needed “fiddling.” All I could say for the last 5 minutes or so (although it felt like an hour) was “Oh no… Oh nooooo… Oh my God no….” I literally clutched my heart when the note to Kevin caught fire. I wanted to make a few comments about what else happened in this episode, the funny moments, the Lena Waithe appearance… but I can’t. I am stunned. I sat with my mouth agape as the fire climbed higher and higher. And the childhood flashbacks as the house burned down? I almost couldn’t stand it! But then I remembered – I am just a viewer. If I am in shock and stunned as a viewer… there is no way to understand the level of terror those in the house went through that night and the devastation the surviving family would endure. Then I realized something else. Everyone else came home. Only Kevin was away. Kevin, who always felt excluded, did not even get to share the most life-changing day of his family’s existence with them. He was an outsider even to his own father’s death. And I couldn’t help but think once Kate found him and told him what happened, his thoughts probably went right to the last thing he said to his father and I’m sure he was knocked breathless with not just the knowledge of Jack’s death, but the enormous guilt over their last interaction.
Guilt and Shame
We know it to be a negative feeling we get when we have done something we feel is wrong. Going a little deeper, guilt comes when we violate our own moral standard – when we do not live up to our ideal self and what we feel we should have done. At its core, guilt is a feeling that focuses on an action or misdeed. Guilt is not a bad thing in and of itself; there are healthy and unhealthy types of guilt. Healthy guilt gets us to apologize to those we harmed and correct our future behavior. Unhealthy guilt can become unbearable and have a negative impact on us and our future goals. Because we can apologize for an action, guilt is something we can consciously acknowledge and resolve.
Shame is a much-discussed topic in psychology and can be related to so many of our problematic interpersonal interactions and our own personal suffering. Shame is sometimes confused with guilt, but they are different. Where guilt is a feeling, shame is tied to how we view ourselves - our identity. It is the difference between saying “I made a mistake” (guilt) and “I am a mistake” (shame). However, it is sometimes far too painful to acknowledge feeling as though we may be “bad” as a person, so shame may go unaddressed. It is hard to acknowledge feeling unworthy, weak, inferior or flawed so we cover it up with sadness, anger, superiority, etc.
Shame Goes Deeper
Shame is harder to resolve because it’s deeper. For Kevin, we can see later he felt guilty for insulting his parents before the Superbowl. He essentially said he was supposed to be the star they would be watching on TV and implied he was too good to join them. In this moment, we see the parents are rightly offended that their son just said he was too good for the household. But we see a common choice parents make which is to shame the child as a punishment rather than trigger some healthy guilt over his actions.
Ideally, it would be great if the parents could help Kevin find the proper way to express his deep sadness over his injury. They could be the “bigger person” and look past his insult and help him understand he is only saying that because he is sad about his injury, that his pain is ok, and that they as parents will help him move forward. But, it seems both mom and dad are not grasping how important football really was to Kevin and how much of his future goals were tied to his success at the game. In their mind, he can easily find a new goal and path in life, which seems a bit tone deaf. So instead they shame him for his statement. Jack asks, “What’s that supposed to mean?” after Kevin’s insult as if to say “Who do you think you are?” This is shaming. This is a clear message that Kevin is not seen as the football star he views himself to be, and that he should see himself as less. He begins to feel he is “bad” for even wanting to be a pro football player that his parents watch at home and for having dreams of stardom. Much of his anger and lashing out stems from feeling shamed. It is no wonder that Kevin is so frustrated and angered at Rebecca’s frequent mention of community college – her tone makes it sound as if there isn’t much difference between his dream and his current option. There is a real insensitivity on Jack and Rebecca’s part to acknowledge Kevin’s grief. Which is probably why, at the end of his angry complaint and insult to his parents, he responded with shame rather than guilt. He said something like, “Kevin is the worst in the household. Order has been restored.” Jack and Rebecca made no attempt to correct him.
It’s clear that in his rehab therapy, Kevin has done some work on his shame. He has moved away from seeing himself as a bad person, and now working on seeing himself as a good person who made mistakes and hurt various people with his actions. This is a much healthier place to be in, because his self-identity can become positive. He is also less likely to make poor choices in the future because they will not be tied to viewing himself as an unworthy, horrible person. He can now focus on healthy guilt over his past actions. I love that we see Kevin’s list of who he needs to make amends with. He is checking off the names of the people who have forgiven him, which can ease some of his pain, reduce his guilt and help him see himself as a good person again.
However, the last name on the list is his father. How can Kevin make amends with a person who is no longer present to provide the forgiveness? This is the most difficult part of guilt, especially when it involves death. It is probably more accurate that Kevin needs to make amends with himself for the hurtful thing he said to his father but wasn’t able to apologize for. He is probably struggling more with guilt that the last thing his father heard him say was belittling rather than loving. He is struggling with the fact that he stormed out, that he chose not to speak to his father on the phone and apologize directly and then lost him in a tragic way. This will be some of his toughest work to do. We know Jack forgave him, because he wrote him a note to say he loved him (as a person) and that he owed his parents an apology (for his actions). Of course, Kevin never got to see the note or know his father forgave him. Kevin has held on to years of shame and guilt because of this (and many other things in life), and has only begun to process the traumatic loss of his father. Being able to forgive himself will take time and years of continued work. We may see him be forgiven by various people in his life, but he is the only person he really needs to make amends with.
Kevin essentially lost Sophie and his Dad on the same day. Does he run off to NY to be with Sophie rather than lose both of them? Is this why mom felt abandoned?
Jack must have tried to save Kate’s dog. Will Kate begin the process of self-forgiveness through caring for Audio?
Did they get ANYONE tell them to get family therapy at all after such a traumatic loss????