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A Primer on Guilt and Shame

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Introduction

Imagine seeing people trudging through life carrying a heavy backpack. When you ask them what is in it, they reply, “I don’t know.” “Well, then, why are you carrying it?” you ask. They give the same answer, “I don’t know.” You see, they have been carrying it so long, they don’t recall how it got on their back, what’s in it, or why they’re carrying it. What a shame it is to needlessly carry such a burden. What exactly is the burden? Often it is SHAME.

Like anything else, shame has both positive and negative aspects. To distinguish between the two, the negative aspect is sometimes called toxic shame. This form of shame is a heavy burden to carry. It is a feeling of worthlessness, a feeling that something is wrong with us, or that we are defective. How can I act confidently and live life to the fullest when I am weighed down with shame? Understanding shame makes it easier to understand what is meant by ‘low self-esteem,’ for all that is, is being ashamed to be oneself.

In the spring, baby birds vociferously chirp, demanding to be fed. They innately know they can depend on their parents to feed them. We are no different. Though helpless at birth, in infancy, and in early childhood, we instinctively turn to our caregivers for all our needs. We have been programmed to expect to receive the help of our parents or caregivers. But what happens when in place of nurturing, we are subjected to abuse, ridicule, or criticism?

A child cannot understand responsibility. It has no way of realizing that the abuse it is forced to bear is because of irresponsible parents. So, if it is denied the love it needs to flourish, it assumes it must be because there is something wrong with it; it must be defective or worthless. This is how we inherit toxic shame. This is when we are saddled with our terrible burden or backpack. It happened so long ago that it is no wonder people are oblivious to the heavy burden they continue to carry.

We’ve been carrying the backpack so long that the straps now dig deeply into our shoulders, making it difficult to remove. So, how do we get it off our back? Begin with understanding how it all began. Understand it had nothing to do with you. You are not at fault, you are not defective, and you certainly are not worthless. Understand, too, that where there is no shame, there is no honor. Where there are no burdens to overcome, there are no victories to achieve. So, welcome your handicap as an opportunity to become truly worthy by overcoming it.

Next, don’t try to substitute shame with blame. Don’t blame your parents for making you that way. They did their best under the circumstances. Forgive them for any harm they did to you. Otherwise you will carry resentment, anger, and hostility, which will ceaselessly eat at you, causing great pain. Keep your thoughts positive and remember this Native American story: “Inside of me there are two wolves. One of them is mean and evil. The other is good. The mean wolf fights the good one all the time. Which one wins? It depends on which one I feed the most.”

The next step is to use your pain to understand the pain of others. Others, too, are racked with self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness. Knowing this, how can you ignore their suffering? Go out of your way to support, comfort, and encourage all those you meet. It is a law of life that we must give away that which we wish to receive. It’s a very easy concept to understand. For example, if I’m disturbed by the sullen faces I see and the lack of humor and goodwill in my environment, what do you suppose will happen if I greet everyone with a smile and share a laugh or two? Won’t they cheer up and brighten up the previously grim environment? So by treating others as though they have great worth (which they do), they become grateful and reciprocate. Therefore, by supporting others, we receive from them the very support we need.

Finally, in addition to offering support and encouragement, perform all kinds of good works. That is, be kind and generous in word and deed. Offer a helping hand. Help someone out and welcome someone into your heart. Just as plant life needs the sun and rain, those we share life with need our love. By offering it, we play an invaluable role in making our world a little bit better. Our very actions will prove that we are not worthless, for the world needs us. The above four steps, then, should be enough for you to dissipate the last remnants of self-doubt. In a word, we heal ourselves by healing the world.

The positive aspect of shame is the feeling of regret we have when we fail to do that which we should. For example, I walk pass a homeless person, failing to offer some of the extra change I have in my pocket. Positive shame is like a clanging bell. It alerts us of opportunities to act with honor. That’s why Colin Powell said, “A sense of shame is not a bad moral compass.” Another word for positive shame is guilt. It is the voice of our conscience offering us a chance to uplift ourselves, by lifting the spirits of others. The path of goodness that our inner voice encourages us to follow is really the path to happiness. With these thoughts in mind, it’s easy to understand why Pascal wrote, “The only shame is to have none.”

When we read about the numerous crimes being committed, it appears that not everyone is following their conscience. Regardless how heinous the crime, it’s safe to say criminals are misinformed, misguided, and misled. They are lost and have strayed from the path. Yes, they are deserving of punishment; after all, society has to be protected. But they are also deserving of mercy and a second chance. Their crimes are not a matter of wickedness as much as a matter of a lack of responsibility. It’s easy to be cynical, as they are, when you consider the truth of the words of Johann Friedrich Von Schiller: “It is criminal to steal a purse, daring to steal a fortune, a mark of greatness to steal a crown. The blame diminishes as the guilt increases.” Another way of viewing criminal behavior is described by John Lyly, “Where the mind is past hope, the heart is past shame.” Why all this emphasis on compassion and forgiveness regarding criminals? Because if you cannot forgive others for their misdeeds, how can you forgive yourself for your own misdeeds? And until you can forgive yourself, you will be forced to carry that backpack.

Anatomy of Guilt and Shame

If you’re feeling guilty, that’s a shame. Why? Because guilt, shame, and other negative emotions have the potential to rob us of happiness and limit our growth. For convenience I may refer to emotions as “positive” or “negative.” However, emotions are neither. They are simply signals to inform us how we feel. It is our reaction to those signals that are positive or negative.

Let’s look at an example that includes fear, anger, guilt, and sadness: Tom had a grueling day at the office. When he gets home, he nearly slips on the kitchen floor that his wife, Betty, had mopped moments earlier. Tom is angry and calls his wife, who comes rushing in from another room. “You idiot!,” he screams, “I could have fallen on the wet floor, banged my head, and gone unconscious!”

Betty bursts into tears and explains, “Jimmy (their five-year-old son) spilt milk on the floor, and I mopped it up.” Tom now feels guilty and says, “I’m sorry honey. Although it’s no excuse, perhaps the combination of my stressful day and the near fall upset me. I know it was terribly unfair of me to get angry at you and call you names. Will you forgive me?” Betty answers with a kiss and embrace.

When Tom started to slip on the kitchen floor, he was gripped by fear. This emotion was simply signaling him that he was in a dangerous situation. Thanks to that signal, he quickly braced his body against the sink and corrected his balance, preventing a fall. Even though he avoided the fall, the thought that he might have been injured by Betty’s ‘carelessness’ upset him. The anger he felt wasn’t negative; it was merely a signal that an explanation was necessary. But his reaction to that signal was definitely negative. He accused his wife of wrongdoing without getting the facts.

When Betty started to cry, he realized he was causing her pain, making him feel sad and guilty. The sadness he felt was a reminder that he was hurting someone he loved. And the guilt he felt was a signal that he owed his wife an apology. Thankfully, Tom responded very well to those signals, and his apology brought him and Betty closer. Ideally, Tom will learn from this experience and whenever he gets upset in the future, will stop and think before acting.

The rest of this article will deal mainly with how we can harm ourselves with guilt and how to overcome it. But before starting, a word about shame. What is the relationship between guilt and shame? Simply put, we feel guilty for what we do and feel shame for what we are. To avoid having a low opinion of ourselves, it is important to resolve our guilt. In my example of Tom, after resolving his guilt by apologizing to Betty, he felt good about himself. If, on the other hand, he were to regularly argue with Betty and fail to repair their relationship, he would be contributing to his own low self-esteem.

Some Harmful Effects of Guilt

1. A major problem with this emotion is that guilt in one area of life can easily compound the problem by creating guilt in another area and escalate into an ever worsening situation. For example, let’s say that Tom regularly succumbs to anger and fails to resolve his problem. As a result of constantly attacking others, he will be destroying his relationships at work and at home. He will find this very painful, and perhaps to numb the pain, he will turn to alcohol, creating another problem. Because of his drinking, he may waste a great deal of money on booze, which would cause more guilt, further pain, and a greater need for relief, which would lead to even more drinking. This can escalate until Tom becomes an alcoholic, gets fired, divorced, and ends up homeless.

2. People suffering from guilt feel uncomfortable among innocent people. To lessen the pain they feel, they may belittle others to make themselves look and feel better. However, such behavior destroys friendships and alienates them from others, adding to their pain.

3. Considerable energy is required to live the life of our dreams. Guilt saps our energy, making us more vulnerable to obstacles and easily defeated.

4. The pain of guilt grabs our attention, shifting our focus from what we can do to improve our lives to what we can do to reduce our pain. But, if we remain alert and resist the urge to run from pain in search of pleasure, we can resolve our guilt by making up for the harm we have done.

5. Just as thieves believe everyone is a thief, guilty people believe everyone is guilty. So, they are unjustly suspicious of others, and their suspicions ruin their relationships, resulting in a loss of power.

6. Those who hide their guilt, such as husbands who abuse their wives, cannot live in peace because they live with the fear of detection.

7. We are raised to believe the guilty should be punished, so when we have unresolved guilt, we may subconsciously punish ourselves by deliberately creating self-defeating setbacks and failure. For example, a ruthless corporate executive climbs to the top by destroying those beneath him. Even though he becomes successful, his subconscious may direct him toward gambling, for example, to make him lose his “undeserved wealth.”

8. When we are responsible for the suffering of others, guilt is an appropriate feeling, and it is hoped that we would respond appropriately by making up for the harm we have caused. But, at times, people feel guilty about things that are not their fault at all. This is called neurotic guilt. An example would be someone who feels they must look after the needs of others before looking after their own needs. This doesn’t make sense because if we fail to look after our own needs, we will be in a weakened position and unable to fully attend to the needs of others. Take care of yourself first so you will be in a better position to help others, and don’t feel guilty about it.

9. Guilt is often used to manipulate and control others. Don’t poison your relations with manipulation and don’t allow others to manipulate you by making you feel guilty. To learn more about guilt and manipulation, see the following articles: When we GIVE IN to others, we GIVE UP on ourselves and Stop being manipulated.

10. Since we cannot do two things at once, the time spent consumed by guilt is time spent away from the excitement, pleasure, and joy of life.

11. Unresolved guilt can develop into anxiety and even depression. So, don’t allow it to linger. Rather than wait until you have a chronic problem, nip it in the bud by acting quickly.

12. The guilty suffer three times: once when they act irresponsibly, again when they see others behave responsibly, and third when they have to pay the consequences.

Caveats

1. If you’re accused of wrongdoing, don’t try to dismiss it by saying something like, “Everybody does that. Boys will be boys. It was just a little indiscretion. Everybody makes mistakes. I didn’t mean any harm.” Rather, assume responsibility for your wrongdoings and use it as a springboard for self-improvement.

2. Don’t weaken your character and lose the trust of others by denying responsibility for your misdeeds. Denying your responsibility is bad enough for it shows cowardice, but trying to escape culpability by blaming others is far worse, for it is nothing less than treachery. But if you do slip and make serious errors, all is not lost. We can always recover. Do your best to repair the damage that was done, learn from it, and move on.

3. Be quick to judge yourself and slow to judge others (or better yet, don’t judge others at all). Remember, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

By now it must be clear that if we allow unresolved guilt to fester, it will greatly reduce the quality of our lives. For this reason, let’s now explore what we can do to resolve it.

First Steps in Resolving Guilt

1. If you can make amends do so. The party you have injured may not forgive you, and you don’t have a right to demand their forgiveness. But at least do whatever you can to make up for the harm you have done. Once you have done your best to rectify the situation, forgive yourself, learn from your mistake, and commit to not repeating it.

2. Question your behavior and look at it closely. Are your feelings of guilt justified or are you experiencing neurotic guilt? Neurotic guilt can easily flourish in the shadows of our subconscious. But carefully examine it in the light of day, for often awareness and close scrutiny are all that is needed to overcome it. After all, once you prove to yourself that you are not responsible for what happened, you will be able to let go of guilt.

3. Defuse the negative feelings of guilt by asking yourself what the benefits are. What can you learn? How can you use the mistake you have made, not only to repair your relationship, but to make it stronger? What opportunities does your guilt offer you? Once you peel its bitter skin, you may find a sweet fruit. But before you can find it, you have to look for it. The best way to overcome guilt is to use it to improve ourselves.

The Complete Cure

What is the cure for the malady of irresponsibility? It is “Response-Ability.” That is, the ability to respond suitably. It is the ability to make the right choices. We can heal ourselves of irresponsibility by following the AAA steps (Admit, Analyze, Atonement). First we need to ADMIT or acknowledge that we made a poor choice. We have to confess to ourselves that what we did was wrong.

Next, we must ANALYZE our behavior. What is the reason for our poor choice? What action should we have taken in its place? What are the consequences of inappropriate behavior? How can we avoid making the same mistake? What action will we now take to stay on track?

When we choose to act properly, our action coincides with what is best for us. Another word for this is integrity. Integrity is what we have when we behave in accordance with our beliefs. The word is related to integration, and it refers to the integration of our heart, spirit, goals, and actions. When everything comes into alignment, when everything is at one, we reach the third step, at-one-ment (ATONEMENT).

When we follow these three steps, our past feeling of guilt will be replaced by responsibility, our past pain will be replaced by a wish to improve, and our past regrets will be replaced by a plan to do better. So, let’s scrape off the rust, tarnish, and blemishes of guilt and let our natural goodness shine through!

References

BOOKS

Guilt Is the Teacher, Love Is the Lesson by Joan Borysenko

Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative EmotionsBy Peter R. Breggin, MD

Escaping Toxic Guilt: Five Proven Steps to Free Yourself from Guilt for Good! by Susan Carrell

Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise by Middelton-Moz MS, Jane

Good-Bye to Guilt: Releasing Fear Through Forgiveness by Jampolsky MD, Gerald G.

Coping with Guilt & Shame Workbook – Facilitator Reproducible Guided Self-Exploration Activities By John J. Liptak and Ester R.A. Leubenberg

VIDEOS

Letting Go Of Guilt – How To Get Rid Of Guilt Instantly

Freeing Yourself From Guilt, Blame and Shame

Shame and Guilt: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Learn more about guilt in the free, online encyclopedia of Psychological Self-Help

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