Guilt is an emotion that involves self-blame or a sense of responsibility for a regretted thought or action. Like any other emotion, guilt is not necessarily based on facts. Justified guilt is what we feel when the facts of the situation warrant the level of responsibility and regret we experience. Perceived guilt is what we feel when we take responsibility for something we really had no control over or when we misinterpret the consequences of our actions. Guilt can be a helpful emotion when it is justified. It motivates us to learn from our mistakes and make a change when warranted.
Shame is different from guilt. It is a sense of worthlessness or inadequacy about aspects of ourselves or in our basic nature. A good way to differentiate guilt and shame is this; we feel guilty for what we do and we feel ashamed of who we are. Shame is fear-based and drives us to want to hide or protect ourselves from scrutiny. It is hardly ever a helpful or motivating emotion.
Responses to Guilt and Shame
As with any other emotion, its not necessarily the feeling itself that is problematic. Rather, it is our response that can have unwanted consequences. Some unhelpful reactions to shame and guilt include:
- Defensiveness, attacking or striking out
- Relentless pursuit of power or perfection
- Blaming others
- Being overly nice or self-sacrificing
- Withdrawing or hiding
Is my Guilt Justified?
How do you know whether or not your feelings of guilt are based on fact and are in proportion to the regretted act?
1. Evaluate your level of responsibility for what happened:
- If a friend came to me with this situation, would I blame them for what happened?
- Did I really have control over the situation?
- Did I understand the potential consequences of my action?
- Am I looking at this with hindsight bias?
- Was my action the lesser of two evils?
2. Evaluate the seriousness of the consequences:
- If a friend was responsible, how serious would I consider it?
- If someone did it to me, how serious would it be to me?
- How important will this experience be five years from now?
- Can any harm that occurred be corrected?
Coping with Guilt
1. Tell Somebody
Shame makes us want to hide our thoughts and feelings. Keeping shameful secrets only allows them to grow because our imagination runs wild and unchecked by outside information. We may be able to hide our shame from others, but the painful thoughts and feelings remain inside us doing their work.
Expressing fears, either privately or to someone who is trusted and understanding, decreases their power and may allow them to be “let go”. There is a long history of using self-disclosure to find relief from feelings of guilt and shame. Consider the practice of confession in some religious faiths. The transgressor acknowledges their wrongful acts to a spiritual leader or to their Higher Power and is absolved. Researchers have discovered there are even health benefits to certain kinds of self-disclosure.
Apology holds great power. A sincere, well-executed apology has the potential to help heal wounds; both for the person who feels guilty as well as for those who were wronged. Conversely, a shallow or poorly communicated apology can re-traumatize the people who were hurt and intensify feelings of guilt in the responsible party. The following are guidelines for making a meaningful apology:
- Don’t apologize unless you really mean it
- Say that you are sorry and explain why – be specific
- Take responsibility for your actions
- Recognize the feelings of the one you wronged
- Offer to make amends
- Don’t expect forgiveness
- Allow the one you wronged to be upset
3. Make Right the Wrongs
Sometimes opportunities exist to actually fix what was broken. Most of the time; however, what was done cannot be undone and making amends becomes a symbolic act showing a sincere willingness to make things right. It is amazing how doing something kind and selfless can contribute toward self-absolution and help heal hurt feelings. The power of penance has been recognized throughout history in many forums. For example, the ninth step toward recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous is making direct amends to those who were wronged.
4. Forgive Yourself
We tend to be our own worst critics which makes self-forgiveness something that is easier said than done. It involves an attitude of openness, self-acceptance, letting go of anger, and a belief in one’s own worth and goodness. Self-forgiveness is not abdicating responsibility. It is seeing mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than as personal failure.
If you are dealing with feelings of guilt and shame and having trouble coping, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can provide a safe place to disclose and explore your fears. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.
Please also visit my resource website http://www.kansascitymentalhealth.com/ for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.