Dealing with Guilt and Shame
Deep down inside, do you feel worthless or unlovable? Do you want to hide away? Do you believe that if other people see who you really are, they will reject you? Do you wonder how to deal with guilt and shame?
These types of feelings come from shame, a core emotion which is closely related to guilt. While shame is about ourselves, guilt is connected to others. Guilt is more specific; it makes you feel bad for something you did or didn’t do. Shame says that what you did proves you are intrinsically a bad person.
Guilt and shame may seem so mixed up together that it’s difficult for you to tell them apart. Your thoughts move almost imperceptibly from that one mistake, to generalised negative statements about your whole personality.
Shame is a deeply held belief that one's being is flawed. Shame can manifest as a core feeling of being not good enough (no matter how hard we try), of not deserving, of not feeling worthy, of not being acceptable or lovable. Shame can also be well disguised. High achievers, people with seemingly high self-esteem can also be very shame-bound.
Shame is message we have deeply learned and made our own, often during our tender years. The foundations of shame are often laid during difficult or traumatic events in childhood. A family background where we were controlled and punished, neglected or abandoned, abused verbally, physically, emotionally or sexually or where we went through trauma, can all create deep feelings of shame. Children are sponges and absorbs everything a parent tells them. As such a child unable to make sense of events or of how they are treated and will assume that they must have done something wrong. They blame themselves, even though events were not their fault. They often grow up feeling or believing they are bad.
Shame is also intensely felt by children who experienced psychological abandonment or emotional neglect. Psychological abandonment occurs when parents do not provide an enviroment necessary for healthy development. For example, when a child has to hide, suppress or disconnect from a part of who he/she is in order to be accepted, or to not be rejected e.g boys don't cry, it's not ok to make a mistake etc. Much of the time, children who grow up feeling this 'unacceptableness' about themselves, find ways to cover up this shame.
If we have grown up with deep feelings of shame, we will find that it disrupts our lives in profound ways. It affects our identity (our sense of who we are), our intimacy with others, and our self-esteem. Shame can affect self-esteem in markedly different ways – we may feel either better or worse than others.
Common indicators of shame include feeling as though we:
- are exposed
- are weak
- are a fraud
- have no voice
- are powerless
- have to cover up
- want to disappear
- are dumb
- are foolish
- are too needy
- are too vulnerable
Origins of shame
If we have developed a strong shame identity, invariably this will have its origin in childhood. Non-nurturing experiences, which can include abuse, neglect and enmeshment, will all contribute to the shamed sense of self. Family shame, such as a parent's alcoholism or psychiatric disorder, and cultural shame, such as belonging to a marginalized ethnic or indigenous group, will compound personal shame. Children lack developed boundaries. There is little protection from family or cultural shame, particularly in dysfunctional families.
Shame comes in many forms and is directed towards the developing child in countless verbal and non-verbal ways. The 'lesson' of shame is all the more indelibly learned if the messages are repetitive and if there is no opportunity to talk about the experiences. Serial abandonment or neglect (emotional or physical) is a powerful teacher. Examples of how children acquire shame include:
- When the parent or caretaker indicates that a child is not wanted, even in jest.
- When a child is humiliated publicly.
- When disapproval is aimed towards the child's entire being rather than the specific behaviour.
- When a child must hide parts of his natural self in order to be accepted, for example, his needs, joys, sorrows, hostilities, fears, mistakes, successes.
- When a child's emotional or physical boundaries are violated as occurs in overt or covert abuse.
- When children feel that they have no privacy, e.g. parents who go through their personal belongings or diaries.
- When events like birthdays or gifts that are important to the child are treated with indifference.
- When a child feels that their parents are somehow different from others in their world. This is experienced strongly when parents are immigrants, a racial minority and experienced poverty.
- When a child feels that a parent or member of the family is somehow flawed compared to other adult figures in his or her world, e.g. where a family member is alcoholic or has a physical or mental disability, and that difference is never discussed or the child can't express feelings about the impact of that difference.
- When trust in important adult figures is damaged or destroyed through inconsistency or neglect.
- When a child grows up with adults who are ashamed and feel powerless in the world.
- When a child is made to feel flawed, worthless, unlovable, or unwanted in the broader world or community, e.g. learning disabilities, inappropriate dress compared with peers.
- When a child is consistently blamed for the actions or emotional state of the parent or the child cannot live up to the unrealistic expectations of the parent.
- When parents use silent disgust as a way of disciplining, children feel that their entire being is bad and there is no opportunity to repair the relationship.
The Effects of Shame
Though feelings of shame may start in childhood, they can be triggered again and again all through our adult lives. Shame can cause:
- a profound lack of self-esteem
- high levels of self-criticism
- frequent outbursts of anger and criticism of others
- difficulty making and sustaining intimate relationships, resulting in superficial relationships
- isolation and loneliness
- frequent blaming of others and pointing out their faults or shortcomings
- perfectionism, out of fear to avoid shame in the future
- self-condemnation and self-sabotage
- becoming numb or ‘spaced-out’, disconnected from feelings and emotions
How Counselling Helps in Dealing with Shame
Shame is not our true identity-it is a learned belief about self. This faulty believe underpins the development of a false or adapted self. The more shame is unrecognised, the powerful it becomes. If shame isn’t dealt with it can run our lives. To deal with it, we first need to see it for what it is and to do this we need a psychologically safe place, where we feel secure to look at our most painful feelings about ourselves and possibly, where they originated. We can heal shame as we come to deeply understand that our true nature is separate from our assumed but faulty belief about self.
In counselling, as we challenge the distorted beliefs we have held about ourselves for a lifetime, as we heal our wounded inner child, as we address our needs, as we discover lost parts of our being, we reduce our shame core. Identifying shame and understanding our own shame process empowers us to modulate and manage shame. For example: What triggers my shame? What are the many faces of my shame? How do I experience a 'shame attack'? Do I lash out in anger or rage at others or do I implode with painful self criticism? What supports me through the shame attack and back to a sense of being ok? What minimizes my shame-susceptibility?
Shame reduction is a long-term and possibly ongoing endeavour for most people who have had an adverse and difficult childhood. It is rewarding to notice changes over time which indicate that shame is healing, such as overcoming perfectionism, procrastination or discovering one’s fear of public speaking has diminished.
Counselling and psychotherapy is probably the only place in life where this kind of exploration is possible. At ARM, a skilled counsellor or psychologist will provide the emotional safety, attunement and objectivity necessary to question our negative views about ourselves and to reassess the events that caused us to believe we were unlovable.
People who have been neglected, abused, victimised or marginalised at a young age, or those who have gone through painful adult experiences such as rejection, job/wealth loss, or infidelity of a partner, may all feel great shame and blame themselves for what has happened. In the safety of counselling this blame can be explored, questioned and laid to rest.
In counselling for shame you can find the truth about what happened and what part you really had to play in it. In our experience as counsellors, usually the part a client played is disproportionate to the amount of shame they feel. They usually feel more shame than necessary. This shows just how much shame can consume one’s personality and affect self-belief. You can also begin to see just how deeply shame is controlling you now.
Through having the experience of opening up to your therapist and yet not being rejected, it is possible for you to be released from shame. Bringing what seemed dark and hidden into the light in a safe and non-judgemental relationship, works to dismantle the foundations of shame and to set you free.
Working through shame with a therapist takes courage. Yet the rewards are huge. Through looking at our most painful beliefs and feelings, we can realise that the truth about us is very different from what we originally believed. We learn that we aren’t bad. What happened is not our fault. We learn that we are fundamentally acceptable and lovable as human beings. Give us a call. We can help.
Guilt arises from inner conflict over something we did or didn’t do, perhaps something embarrassing or harmful we did or said to someone else. Small amounts of guilt about real actions are healthy and can act as conscience, stimulating us to make amends and not to make the same mistakes in the future.
However, guilt can also grow so large that it becomes a problem. We brood on what we did, torment ourselves with the past and become negative and depressive. Sometimes we know intellectually that what we did is really not that bad but somehow the guilty feelings persist. Often when this is the case, it helps to think about whether the event may have triggered a past memory or incident that we are not fully conscious of. Our emotions have a way of periodically reminding us to process painful memories, or where we are stuck, to allow us to move ahead in a healthy way.
It may be hard to believe that our reasons for feeling guilty may be illogical or flawed. We may have set up unrealistic standards of behaviour or there may be an inevitable clash between the values of our upbringing and how we need to behave to fit in with friends and contemporaries.
Unexamined guilt can eat away at us in all kinds of ways. The ways may not be visible or conscious. Unexamined guilt can cause not only emotional problems such as depression, but also psychosomatic ailments, such as skin disorders. Unhealthy guilt can cause us to over-work, or strive try to make everyone around us happy, ignoring our own needs to avoid upsetting others. Guilt can make us over-sensitive, agonising over every little thing we say and do. We may even become incapable of doing or saying anything at all, closing off from others and from life, out of fear.
How Counselling Helps in Dealing with Guilt
Working through your guilt with a counsellor can help you make peace with yourself and with the past. The first step is to explore what happened and how you feel and consider whether it is warranted or unfounded. Maybe the real reasons for your feelings of guilt lie somewhere else entirely, perhaps in childhood. Perhaps your inner logic is inaccurate and you are not actually to blame.
On the other hand, counselling for guilt can make it easier to come to terms with guilt that you do feel is justified. Through sharing your inner thoughts and feelings, safely, with a counsellor you can find acceptance for what you did, or the necessary courage to make amends.
Sometimes actions we took may have had consequences we could never have dreamed of. Although we had a part to play in what happened, the end results were hardly our fault. Here counselling can give you the necessary understanding and perspective to reframe what happened in a kinder, more compassionate way that is more supportive of you.