How do we handle feelings of guilt and shame?

The moral and social standards which we form, the concepts regarding how we should be and what we should do are largely conditioned by the education we have received from our parents and teachers, by the interactions with significant people in our life. When we broke these standards or when we didn’t meet the expectations of those closest to us, feelings of guilt and shame arose. How many times didn’t you hear “you should be ashamed of yourself” or other such things that have led us to question our human quality. Because guilt and shame turn in time into burdens that make us lose our self-confidence, sabotage our happiness and destroy our morale.

They are not only deeply connected  to our Self, to the way we see ourselves, but they are also “social”, in the sense that they arise in interpersonal contexts and are powerful tools for conditioning other's behaviors.

Parents induce these feelings to their children if they don’t respect their rules, and once they grow into adults this mechanism continues to work. They are emotionally blackmailed if they don’t continue to please their parents, if the way they choose to live their life doesn’t meet their parents’ expectations and claims: “if you do this, I’ll die”, “after all the sacrifices I’ve done for you, can’t you at least…”

Also in couple relationships the partners frequently use this technique to make the other person satisfy their own needs and desires. There are situations when one of them wants to end the relationship for different reasons but he/she doesn’t do it because he/she would feel guilty. Therefore, they continue a relationship where no one is happy - the person who wants to end it has nothing to give anymore or can’t find their place there, they distance from their partner (if they haven’t already done so) and the other one blames himself/herself for this change. The two of them get stuck in real or imaginative guilt feelings feeding their unhappiness or their shared loneliness.

In general, people who easily feel overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and shame try to please others and they need their validation. They seek their approval, often behaving differently than they feel. Because they don’t have enough confidence or they don’t think they’re good enough, it’s hard for them to refuse others, being afraid that they’ll be rejected, criticized or abandoned and worrying about what other people think about them. Therefore, they find it difficult to set clear limits and boundaries of interaction, frequently being in the situation where they make compromises and do things against their will because otherwise they would feel guilty that they would disappoint others.

It’s important to know that we aren’t responsible for other people’s happiness and it’s not our job to satisfy their claims and expectations, especially when we don’t feel like doing those things, but we end up doing them anyway because of the guilt that is induced to us. There is nothing wrong in taking care of yourself and your needs, in saying “no” when you want to say “no”, in putting yourself first. And this doesn’t mean selfishness and you have no reason to feel guilty.

In spite of apparent similarities, guilt and shame are different in the sense that guilt involves a negative evaluation of certain specific behaviors and rather has to do with our qualms of conscience we have towards a particular situation, and shame involves a global negative evaluation of our self and it has to do with the exposing of our weaknesses and failures in front of others and the fact that we are disapproved because of our defects.

Guilt involves a certain amount of tension, remorse and regret over that thing considered to be bad that we’ve done. It implies an obsessive concern about the mistake committed, the desire to make things different, or to repair the wrong done.

Shame makes us feel small, unworthy, powerless, exposed. And, even if there isn’t a “public” to notice our minuses, there is an inner critic who devalues us, who makes us feel unworthy and disagreeable. Not surprisingly, this feeling makes us want to run away or hide.

As children, if we are confronted repeatedly with experiences which make us feel unworthy or worthless, which diminish our confidence, which make us ashamed of who we are, or if we go through certain traumatic experiences (such as physical or sexual abuse) we begin to develop a feeling of inadequacy that always accompanies us. As adults, we continue to feel as if we are “broken”. We are ashamed of who we are, we don’t believe that we can do more or deserve more, we accept dysfunctional relationships, we find it hard to trust others, even when they have good intentions - because we don’t believe we deserve to be treated nicely, we sabotage ourselves or we develop all sorts of addictions whose purpose is to make us forget about these feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy. We believe that we aren’t worthy of love, that we are bad people, that we aren’t important, we don’t matter, that we are some kind of losers. This shame feeling always accompanies us.

These deeply rooted beliefs in our minds make us see ourselves in a distorted manner. We have to become aware of them and constantly monitor our thoughts to observe when we give in to these irrational beliefs. To learn to show ourselves compassion - that is, to care for our well-being, to take care of ourselves, to do things which prove that we respect and value ourselves. This way we can rewrite our beliefs and begin to believe that, yes, we are worthy of love and respect, we do matter. That we have no reason to be ashamed of who we are. That we can get rid of toxic shame and guilt.

Instead of feeling guilty, let’s take responsibility for our deeds, let’s try to fix what can be fixed, or to learn the lesson in order to improve ourselves in the future. Let’s make assumed choices for which we have no reason to feel guilty. Let’s replace guilt with responsibility. And instead of being ashamed of who we are, let’s admit both our qualities and defects, let’s learn to accept ourselves entirely and change those aspects that make us feel uncomfortable in our own skin.

Although there is the belief that guilt and shame are good because would prevent us from making mistakes, in fact they are useless burdens that diminish our self-esteem. Instead of feeling ashamed or guilty we should take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and actions.

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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