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How shame and guilt can affect us

Shame and guilt are common human emotions. Guilt relates to our sense of right and wrong, and most people experience it after making a mistake or doing something they regret. It can help us to recognise the effects of the choices we make. People who feel a lot of guilt are more empathic and attuned to others’ emotions. It’s linked to specific actions, and focuses on the effect on other people. A person who is feeling guilty may think that they did a bad thing. However, shame is more general and pervasive, and focuses on the self. A person experiencing shame feels that their core identity is inferior or bad, and may think that they are a  bad person. 

Guilt and shame are only experienced by humans and are part of how we developed in order to be safe, and learn how to find our moral compass. As we need to be part of a group in order to survive, feeling regret for something bad we feel we have done helps us to be secure within a group. Guilt and shame are necessary to help us auto-regulate so that we can follow the social norms of our group.

Shame is a symptom of the parasympathetic system (which slows down bodily activity and helps re-establish balance (homeostasis) after a more stressful period), depressing the urge or ability to act as the body doesn’t have the energy. In a healthy environment, these normal experiences of shame are repaired by the parent so that after feeling shame and thereby inhibiting undesired or unsafe behaviour (to protect the child), the parent soothes them and clarifies the situation. However, in an unhealthy environment, shame can make children inhibit ‘undesirable’ behaviour, as when it downregulates excitement and impulsivity, they can avoid doing whatever behaviour their parent was forbidding, and so be able cope with the situation because they are not soothed. When a parent doesn’t want to deal with the child’s feelings (fear, anger…) they can instead use shame habitually to make parenting easier, thereby creating obedience. The child internalises the overuse of shame to inhibit any thought or emotion that might be unsafe or that they don’t want to deal with.

In healthy or ‘clean’ guilt when a person is not burdened by deeply held fears and anxieties, the interaction between guilt and the person turns into clear action to make amends, which comes from a place of acceptance of our own limitations and compassion for those we have hurt. However, in unhealthy or ‘burdened’ guilt, the guilt in us knows our vulnerabilities and uses them to get us to make amends. For instance, if someone is prone to feeling abandoned and betrayed, their guilt will tell them that the consequences of what they have done will be abandonment and betrayal. Unfortunately, people can end up using ‘quick fixes’ such as substance use, over or under-eating, sex, self-harm and risk-taking behaviours and the guilt becomes even stronger.

It is important to find out whether we are feeling guilt, shame or both. If we are feeling both we think, ‘I did a bad thing. So, I’m a bad person.’ We may take guilt over a specific incident and generalise it into shame about who we are as a person. Learning to remain specific with our guilt can help avoid entering a spiral of shame. It also helps to explore what exactly we feel guilty or ashamed about, and what lies behind our shame. Possible underlying causes could be a fear of abandonment, a fear of consequences, or a history of shaming parenting.

We can also look at our hidden assumptions, and learn to reframe them. One hidden assumption of many people who struggle with guilt is that they must continue to punish themselves by feeling guilty forever. So, they can ask themselves:

  • ‘Which part of me is seeking forgiveness and which part is doing the forgiving?’
  • ‘Did I mean to do the thing that I feel guilty about? Did I mean for the outcome to be what it was?’
  • ‘If I had been convicted for the thing that I feel guilty about, what would the punishment have been? And how long have I felt guilty for?’

Healthy guilt does its job and then needs to end. So, it’s good to get to a position where we can say, ‘I’ve seen where I went wrong, I understand how to correct it or make amends, and I’ve learned from my mistake.’

We can also try to work out what evidence we have for having upset or hurt someone with our actions (or lack of actions). We can explore whether it was our responsibility to act (or not act) or whether we tend to take on responsibility for other people’s feelings.

We can also gently address all-or-nothing perceptions about ourselves, for instance, ‘I’m either a perfect person or a guilty person’. And we could analyse any simplified assumptions about how life works, as people, events and situations are rarely good or bad, but rather somewhere in between.

People who have suffered trauma experience shame as a somatic response, which triggers submission. For those of us who experienced a continuously dangerous environment (for instance, abusive parenting), feeling shame is what helped to keep us safe. Coming to realise that we used shame to protect ourselves and survive can be helpful.

The Socratic method asks a series of focused, open-ended questions that encourage reflection and expose and unravel deeply held values and beliefs that frame and support what we think and say. There are five steps in Socratic questioning:

  1. Understand our belief, by asking ourselves to state this clearly, to present our argument, or to elaborate and give examples. For example, ‘What do I mean when I say I feel “ashamed”?’
  2. Summarise our belief to check that it’s really what we mean and look at the implications of feeling guilt/shame, for example, ‘How has feeling guilty impacted my life so far? Has it made it better or worse?’
  3. Provide evidence, using open questions to elicit further knowledge and uncover assumptions, misconceptions, inconsistencies and contradictions, to understand our reasoning. For instance, ‘What evidence do I have that X is upset by my actions? Is there any evidence to the contrary?’
  4. Gently challenge my own assumptions. If contradictions, inconsistencies, exceptions or counterexamples are identified, explore them as a way of challenging, and look at alternative viewpoints. For instance, ‘Am I assuming that I have to continue to punish myself forever?’ or ‘How would I expect someone else to feel if they were in my position?’
  5. Repeat the process if required.

References:

Launder, A. (2022). Working with Guilt [lecture]. Counsellor CPD. Counselling Tutor.

[20/05/2024].

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