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Guilt & Shame

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

"I have never smuggled anything in my life. Why, then, do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a customs barrier?"

-John Steinbeck

In writing about parenting and Mother’s Day this past weekend, it brought to mind that for many people, our parents and also the parenting some of us may do ourselves can sometimes be sources of both guilt and shame. Guilt and shame can be heavy burdens that people carry for years and even decades and they are some of the most common issues I encounter with people in psychotherapy.

Both guilt and shame are naturally developing emotions in early childhood, but it is interesting that neurologists at the National Institute for Mental Health have detected shame in children as young as eighteen months while healthy guilt is not typically detected until around age three. This indicates that shame is more deeply wired in the brain, and it is why shame often requires more time and effort to eradicate in adults than guilt.

The primary difference between shame and guilt is that shame is never a healthy emotion while guilt can sometimes be either healthy or unhealthy. Guilt is the feeling we get when we realize we have done something inherently wrong. Yesterday as my two granddaughters were leaving the house, Lily shoved her younger sister Autumn and knocked her down as they were both racing to be the first one out the door. Autumn started crying and Lily locked eyes with me just then and seemed to instantly realize I had witnessed the whole episode. I could see guilt on Lily’s face before I even asked: “Was that a nice way to treat your sister?” What Lily did was wrong, she knew it, and she felt healthy guilt about it.

Healthy guilt is also healthy because it can be easily resolved through action. After I asked Lily that question, she answered no and then immediately said to Autumn: “I’m sorry.” She took ownership without trying to deny what she did or justify it as acceptable behavior.

A very common unhealthy guilt I encounter on a regular basis in psychotherapy occurs when adults have blamed themselves for a lifetime over something that happened in childhood or adolescence. I always feel so badly for people when I can see how much pain and anguish years of unhealthy guilt have wrought upon them. Not long ago I worked with a woman in her seventies who had been molested repeatedly by an uncle when she was a young teen. It took tremendous courage for the woman to disclose this, and she said in her entire life since then she had never told this to anyone, not even her husband of more than fifty years who had passed away before she eventually entered therapy.

The woman’s guilt came from feeling as though the molestation was her fault because in her words she: “didn’t do anything to stop it.” This was an example of unhealthy guilt which is when we hold ourselves to impossible or unreasonable standards for something we’ve done or failed to do. In this case, the woman felt she should have told her Uncle to stop or to have somehow forcefully stopped him. So I asked then her how old was she when the molestation started, and she said she was thirteen at the time and her uncle was in his thirties.

I asked if she knew anyone around the age of thirteen today and she said she had granddaughters that age. I asked her if one of her thirteen-year-old granddaughters was going to be molested by a man in his thirties right now, could that granddaughter be expected to stop it? She said: “Of course not,” and then that proverbial mental light bulb lit up as she realized how she had unfairly judged herself all the years since then. She then described how she had always thought of herself in those memories as the adult she is now and it had been difficult to realize she was only a child at the time and could not have resisted the evil intent of an adult predator.

While guilt can be healthy and serve us in good ways such as to keep us from doing harmful, antisocial, or immoral things to ourselves or others, guilt can also become unreasonable and irrational when we blame ourselves for things that are impossible or beyond our control. Unhealthy guilt is common in young people who try their hardest in school but fail to measure up to the expectations they have received or interpreted from their parents. I also see unhealthy guilt frequently in spouses who blame themselves for a partner’s behavior such as the wife who says: “If I didn’t make him so frustrated, he wouldn’t lose his temper so badly,” or “If I was a better wife, he wouldn’t have to look elsewhere for happiness.”

Shame is different from guilt because it has nothing to do with anything we’ve done or failed to do. Shame is the fundamental belief that we are permanently flawed in some way. Unhealthy guilt if left unresolved for too long can sometimes devolve into shame such as the young woman who keeps blaming herself for not looking as fit as the peers she sees on social media and eventually comes to believe she is just ugly, undesirable, and unworthy. Shame can become our default belief which underlies our entire worldview where we see ourselves as less worthy than anyone else. Shame can even lead to feeling like we shouldn’t exist and the world would be a better place without us.

A common outcome from both unhealthy guilt and shame is separation from others or isolation from society. As we come to believe that we are flawed and unworthy or to blame for things we’ve not achieved for instance, we see ourselves as “less than” those around us and we no longer feel comfortable to be in the presence of those we deem as better than ourselves. If someone has accumulated unhealthy guilt over time, they may have had friends and a social life at one time but that later grew gradually smaller and eventually diminished. Someone raised with shame from early childhood may never have had friends or anyone they considered themselves very close to at all. Living with unhealthy guilt or shame can be a very lonely place to be in life, but the good news is that this can be relieved through some intentional action.

Resolving unhealthy guilt starts first with understanding it and separating it from any healthy guilt which may be confusing the situation. Once that unhealthy guilt is better defined and understood, then it can be resolved in a similar way that healthy guilt is resolved except directing those actions inward. Just like my granddaughter Lily resolved her healthy guilt by apologizing to her sister, you may need to find forgiveness for yourself in having held yourself to an unreasonable standard or for beating yourself up emotionally over things you really couldn’t control. Forgiving yourself can be a monumental step forward therapeutically. All too often we may be willing to forgive others for many different things, but we can struggle to find and apply that same grace to ourselves.

Shame can be more challenging to overcome but it can definitely be healed and resolved with intentional effort. Therapy can be effective in helping someone understand how they have internalized irrational beliefs about themselves so confronting those distortions can be a first step towards emotional liberation from the bondage of shame. Learning to accept yourself, to like yourself, and even to love yourself in a healthy way can be the gateway to a far more happy and joyful existence.

With both unhealthy guilt and shame, connection with others is extremely therapeutic. Connection to other people is a powerful way to begin realizing how all of us have both individual strengths as well as weaknesses. It’s also helpful to realize how common it is for people to feel inadequate around others and that you are far from alone if you’re feeling self-conscious in a social situation.

Therapeutic support groups can be extremely effective in eradicating shame because they are places to realize and hear first-hand that we all have flaws or things we have been challenged with. Fellowships like Alcoholics Anonymous are so effective because it’s a psychologically safe place where people are transparent and real about themselves in sharing openly with others about their struggles and maybe how they have found freedom beyond something that has kept them bound in shame. Once we realize that other people may struggle just like we do, it helps us realize that we have connection and we’re not the only one or any less worthy than someone else in being part of humanity.

A sense of community, belonging, and acceptance is a great thing to experience in life which no one should be excluded from or denied the opportunity to enjoy. Our work here together helps contribute to that and it benefits each of our lives on many levels simply for having taken the time to engage with each other like this. In that regard, I am so glad that you are here and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be acquainted with you, to engage in meaningful therapeutic work with you, and to have this moment where life has crossed our paths together for a time together.

I hope that in realizing this as such a unique opportunity and meaningful experience that you might find more opportunities to engage with others in your life or those around you in similar ways. Just by being fully you in transparency and sincerity you can help them also experience the benefits and joys of meaningful interaction, human engagement, and interpersonal connection.

Have a great week!

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