Dealing with Guilt and Shame

From the moment a baby learns words, parents teach right from wrong. With this social learning comes the lesson of guilt. We teach children to say sorry for their actions. “You did something wrong…now say sorry.” Guilt is the emotional state of inner conflict whereby you believe you have done something or not done something that you should have

Guilt has a place, it can help us examine our actions, learn from the behaviour, make amends and move on. There are levels of guilt that are healthy and others that are unhealthy. Healthy guilt allows us to recognise, learn, and grow. Ultimately we seek to make amends with those we have wronged. But crucially we make amends with ourselves and release the guilt.

Unhealthy guilt is where we have an unrealistic pedestal of ourselves. We are superhuman! Unable to make mistakes or make errors of any kind. This can cause a lot of distress, anxiety or depression. This can manifest into Shame.

Brent Brown(2012)speaks extensively about guilt and shame. She states:

Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.

Brown, (2012)TedX

What does shame do for us? It can actually be highly dangerous. It can lead to feelings or beliefs that you are wrong, bad, flawed, undeserving of love or good things, undeserving of forgiveness…to name a few. It can have lasting effects on our mental wellbeing.

The key is in accepting the nature of the human being, capable of making mistakes, incapable of being perfect. Often the judgement on the person can be much higher than the behaviour that was carried out.

Consider this example in parenting: By removing the labels on the child “You’re bold for doing that”, “You’re cheeky”, “You’re not nice” it removes the shame. Instead, by focusing on the behaviour: “I don’t like what you’re doing “ this accepts the child but not the behaviour. Labels are powerful things. The same can be applied to adults. Healthy levels of guilt apply change but shame affects the internal dialogue, feelings of worth and wellbeing. Ultimately no change arises from shame.

Sometimes the internal dialogue that includes low feelings of self-worth, undeserving, unable to forgive, ashamed can be more deep-rooted from childhood. Psychotherapy can explore these feelings/messages and examine their place and context.

If you are dealing with unwarranted levels of guilt or are having feelings of shame and would like to talk about how I can help please get in touch.