Guilt and shame

In my last post, I talked about the four basic feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at two very closely related emotions: guilt and shame. Additionally, we will look at an important distinction between the two. Both guilt and shame are examples of emotional pain, and they are similar to each other, but not exactly the same. Each of them is based on a core belief that we hold to be true. As such, they are more complex than the four basic, instinctual feelings listed above. Some animals, which are incapable of holding these complex beliefs, are therefore not capable of having feelings like guilt and shame. For instance, many of us have scolded a pet dog for tearing up the trash or some other bad behavior, and our dog, knowing it did something wrong, looked appropriately guilty. Cats, on the other hand, are either incapable of feeling guilt, or they are too cool to let on.

Okay, let’s look at guilt. Guilt is a feeling based on this belief: I have done a bad thing. If we believe we have done a bad thing, and our feelings are in relatively good working order, then we feel guilt. For instance, if I’m driving home from work, and I side-swipe a parked vehicle because I was busy looking at a text, and I screech to a halt, I then look around and see no one, and then take off without leaving a note, then I’m probably going to feel guilty, and rightly so. My thought process will go something like this: Well, I just fled the scene of an accident that was totally my fault. I should have done the right thing by stopping and trying to find out who owned that car, or at the least, leave a note, but I didn’t. I ran away, and now someone is going to have to pay for my mistake. I’m going to have a guilty conscious. Now, I have two choices: I can go back, and make it right, or I can live with my guilty conscious until the feeling slowly fades away, although I might always feel a tinge of guilt when I remember what I did.

In the example described above, my guilt is appropriate. I did something wrong. My feeling of guilt might compel me to make things right, which is what guilt is for: to compel us to make things right when he have done a bad behavior. And the fact is this: good people do bad behaviors from time to time. All of us have done bad behaviors, and anyone who says they haven’t is either divine or lying. It’s a fact of life.

However, there is also the possibility that I think I have done something wrong, when in fact, I haven’t. Whether I have or haven’t done something wrong doesn’t matter as much as what I believe I have done. In other words, it’s possible to feel guilty without actually being guilty. Here’s an example: let’s say my friend George calls me in the middle of the night and says, “Dude, I need your help. I’ve been evicted, and I’ve got two hours to move out. You gotta help me.”

“Whoa,” I say. “It’s ten ’til midnight, and I have to work in the morning. In fact, you woke me up.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” George says. “I wouldn’t call if it weren’t an emergency, but I gotta be out of here by two a.m., or they’re gonna haul me away.”

“When did you find out about this?” I ask.

“About a month ago, but you know me, I blew it off until the last minute. But now it’s down to the wire, and you gotta help me.”

“Sorry,” I say. “It’s too late at night, I’m not getting out of bed at this hour.”

“Dude, you gotta,” George says. “Don’t leave me hanging in the lurch.”

“Sorry, but I’m going back to bed.”

“Man, I thought you were my friend,” George says. “I thought that’s what friends were for – to help each other out in a pinch. I need your help, and you’re turning your back on me.”

George is attempting to manipulate me with that classic technique known as a guilt trip. There is no more effective way of getting someone to do what you want, other than threatening physical violence, than the guilt trip. If you can make someone feel guilty, then most likely, you’ve got a puppet on a string. In the above case, my feelings of guilt might compel me to get out of bed and go help George, although I will likely feel a great deal of resentment toward him for manipulating me, and some resentment toward myself for being manipulated. On the other hand, I might decide to let my friend suffer the consequences of his own bad behavior, which included getting evicted and not doing anything about it until the last second. This might seem cold-hearted to some people, especially those prone to rescuing – but that’s a topic for another day.

Some people have what might be called an “over-developed sense of guilt.” Where does this come from? Is it something they are born with? Perhaps, but more likely, this is a learned response. If I teach my child that all of my problems are her fault, by making such statements as, “You’re the reason I’m an alcoholic,” or, “My life was great until you came along,” then I am priming her for a lifetime of inappropriate guilt feelings. (By the way, some parents do say such things.) Children below the age of twelve or thirteen lack the critical reasoning skills to recognize such statements for what they are, which is pure nonsense. By the time a child reaches the age where they are capable of challenging such statements, they might already be conditioned to believe that they are responsible for everyone else’s problems. I’ve had a number of clients who exemplify this belief with statements like, “I apologize all the time, even when I know it’s not my fault.”

If a person learns to feel guilty about everything, then it is highly likely that she will also learn to feel shame. Shame, like guilt, comes from a particular belief. In this case, that belief is some variation on I am a bad person. As such, it is similar to guilt, but with this important distinction: guilt refers to a behavior, while shame refers to the self. Our feelings of guilt might be entirely appropriate, but shame is rarely warranted. If doing a bad thing made one a bad person, then we’re all bad. Usually, when one feels shame, one is confusing one’s behavior for the notion of who I am. For instance, I might do something really self-defeating, and then think, What kind of a person does that? There must be something really wrong with me. The result is a sense of shame. On the other hand, I might think of it like this: Wow, that was a really bonehead move. I should probably figure out why I did that, so I don’t keep making such a mistake in the future. I might feel some guilt, but that guilt might compel me to try to fix the underlying problem, which is usually a pretty good idea.

There is a term that therapists sometimes use to describe a certain type of mind-set, which is a shame-based identity. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Some people have been guilted and shamed to the point that it seems to define who they are to themselves. This is unfortunate, because it is extremely difficult to be a reasonably happy person with this kind of pervasive thinking. One of the main goals of therapy is to consistently challenge this type of mind-set, and replace it with something healthier and more accurate. A lot of bad behaviors that we do might seem like indicators of some inherent defect or “character flaw,” when in fact those behaviors might better be defined as defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms can literally save our lives when we first develop them, but very often, we outgrow the need for them. By that time, however, the behaviors have become habitual, and they are usually off-putting to others. This is another topic that will be explored in greater depth sometime soon.

I encourage my clients to take responsibility for their behavior, but I caution them not to go overboard. In my practice, I frequently refer to the concept of the middle ground. Often, people find themselves operating at extremes, which are rarely healthy places to be. Middle ground refers to the broad area between extremes. Another term for it might be happy medium. When it comes to taking responsibility for one’s behavior, one extreme would be to deny responsibility for everything. We’ve all met people like this – the guy who thinks it’s never his fault. On the other extreme is the unhappy person who feels like everything is his fault. Neither position is healthy, or realistic. Ideally, we learn to look at our behavior as objectively as possible, and when we are at fault, we admit it and try to make amends. Like most things, it’s easier said than done, but it can be done.

One last thing – we tend to look at our own guilt in terms of all-or-nothing, and the fact is, it’s not always that cut and dried. Sometimes we are not completely at fault, but we did have some responsibility for something bad that happened. If our thinking is all-or-nothing, then we have to be either totally at fault, or without blame. The reality might be that we are partly to blame, in which case, we can take responsibility for our part without going overboard and without minimizing.

As I mentioned above, all of us have done bad things during our lifetimes. We’re not saints, and we’re not demons, either. When we look at our bad behaviors, even old ones, we might feel guilty. Again, the best we can do is make amends whenever possible, keep the lesson, and forgive ourselves for being human. That last one is one of the main tasks for many people, and one of the most difficult yet necessary things they will ever do. There is tremendous healing power in forgiveness, and sometimes the most challenging person to forgive is our self.


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