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Feelings of shame and guilt

Guilt and shame: these two emotions are quite closely connected: “I shouldn’t be like this, I have let everybody down”; “I must have done something wrong”; “I ought to have done better”; “I am no good.” Guilt usually involves a judgement of our self, often set against almost impossible standards of perfection, or a belief that we have violated a certain set of rules. Shame is usually a view that we are not a very nice person, or we have done something that we suppose is wrong or dirty—sometimes a very long time ago. Once we get into the pattern, or habit, of seeing ourselves in these ways (guilty or shameful), it is quite difficult to break. Both are distortions of who we really are, a bit like looking at ourselves in one of those crazy mirrors in a fairground. We see ourselves as only shameful, or totally guilty. The steps that we need to take to get out of these patterns are usually as listed below.

Re-assess the seriousness of our actions. We tend to feel (totally) guilty or shameful about allour actions, both large and small. This is quite absolute, quite black and white, no shades of grey. If we were to graduate our feelings, what would we feel REALLY bad about, or quite bad about, or just a little bad about—a twinge, say? Try to begin to categorize your feelings, and not let the small things carry the same weight as the big ones. In this analysis, you can use questions like: “Do other people consider this to be as bad as I do?”; “Why do some people consider it less seriously?”; “How would I feel if my best friend had done this?”; “How important will it be tomorrow, or next week, or next year?”; “If someone had done this to me, …”; “Did I know ahead of time that this would have these effects?”; “Do my current judgements apply, if they are based on what I knew then?”; “Can I make amends in any way—and how much should these amends be?”; “Was there a worse action that I avoided by doing this?”

Eliminate those “shoulds” and “oughts”. These were probably given to us as children, by our parents, teachers, church, or whatever. However useful and well-meaning they were then, how appropriate are they now for you as an adult, thirty, forty or fifty years later? What if you were to change the words “should” or “ought to” into “could”? “I could go to church this Sunday.” “I could send everyone a postcard when I am on holiday.” “I could go to this [event] because I have been asked.” The thought-form or statement carries a totally different weight to it now and there is much more choice involved. Does it make you feel differently? Rules and strictures are (possibly) all right for a learning situation for a child, but, as we mature, we can respect our own individual choice and discrimination. We might not want to do this or that, and there is no need to feel shameful or guilty about it.

Change the blame. Either try to change the way you blame yourself, often for something you were not particularly responsible for, or consider that you may be blaming other people and overlooking ways in which that you might have contributed to the problem, without really realizing it. It does not do anyone any good at all. Just stop it, please. It is almost a form of selfindulgence. “Somebody should be guilty; there isn’t anyone else around, so it must be me.” Or something like that!

Weighing personal responsibility. “How much was I, myself, actually responsible for this?” Try to construct something like a “responsibility cake” with different sections or slices for all the people or things that might have been responsible. In an example where you were a passenger in a car that crashed, which is the driver’s section of responsibility, which the slippery road, which the oncoming car’s undipped headlights, which the distraction from the music, which is your section? In an argument about your mother-in-law coming to stay, which section is your spouse’s refusal to hear anything negative about his/her mother, which section about you wanting to go off and do something else that week-end, which about having had a drink or two, which about having had a bad day at work, and which is your section?

Breaking the silence. Shame is often the perception that we have done something wrong and shameful, therefore we need to keep silent about it. We feel that if anyone finds out, there will be this terrible reaction; we must therefore be such a horrible person, etc. The best way to work at this one—another distortion—is to challenge it. Tell someone. The chances are that you will get a different reaction to that which you fear most. You may need to choose the person that you tell quite carefully: tell them how anxious you feel; make sure there is enough time available. Your partner, your best friend, a counsellor, a doctor, a minister or priest, should, one hopes, respond to your “shameful” secret quite reasonably and responsibly. This more general acceptance from another person will help you to reassess your feelings about your shame and guilt.

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