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Guilt & Shame: How you can break through the toxicity and find freedom

Shame and guilt

I have the privilege of working in a treatment center with young people who have mental illness and to hear their stories. Many of them have a history of traumatic experiences or other difficult situations that cause them to doubt themselves or others. Most of these young people have parents or guardians in their lives who are trying to support their kids while attempting to survive family circumstances that challenge all of them to the extreme. Some of these parents have also experienced trauma in their past and so the dynamics of our family therapy sessions can be rather intense.

One of the things I have noticed with these young people and their parents is that they often are dealing with guilt and shame. I have found this to be so extensive that often the ability of the families to make progress is directly related to how well they deal with shame and guilt. Our goal as treatment providers is to allow them to experience a turning point in their lives that will change the course of their relational health.

So, what are these intense feelings that seem to have the power to take over our lives? Author Harriet Lerner writes, “Guilt is what we feel when we behave in a way that violates our core values and beliefs – assuming, of course, that our conscience is in good working order. the experience of guilt is usually tied to specific behaviors that we’re not especially proud of, like betraying a friend’s confidence, or hurting someone in the name of honesty … Healthy guilt is a good thing. It helps us to regulate our behaviors by jolting us when we stray too far from being the decent, honest, responsible person we aim to be.”

Since all of us make mistakes, it is very common for us to feel guilty. but, just because we feel guilty, doesn’t mean we don’t knowingly do something that is hurtful to others – something that might be against our core values. So, we see that it is important to know what our beliefs and values are and have some awareness of what we are doing to become those healthy people we want to be.

The other emotion – shame – is often confused with guilt, but has a very different definition. Shame researcher Brené Brown writes, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

There have been many studies regarding guilt and shame and there seems to be a helpful distinction between the two. Harriet Lerner says, “Unlike guilt, the experience of shame is not tied to a specific behavior. Instead it is linked to who we believe we are, deep down. We feel shame when we think we’re too ugly, stupid, fat, mentally ill, needy, or incompetent to be worthy of receiving love or even walking around the planet, using up valuable oxygen. Shame feeds the conviction that another person couldn’t possibly love or respect us if he or she really know the whole pitiful, God-awful truth about us.”

Lerner is not the only one who sees this distinction. Brown also states, “Guilt and shame are both emotions of self-evaluation … the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences between ‘I am bad’ (shame) and ‘I did something bad’ (guilt). Shame is about who we are and guilt is about our behaviors.”

Children and adolescents especially seem to take on this “I am a terrible person” perception which colors their thoughts, feelings and actions. Author Claudia Black makes this connection with shame when she says, “Shame is an accumulation of painful feelings that come with the belief that who we are is not good enough. We experience shame when we think of ourselves as inadequate, insufficient, or ‘less than’ …When we pull away layers of shame, we typically find abandonment. It may be both physical and emotional abandonment or it could be only emotional. In either situation, it is traumatic to children in their development.

This is where shame raises its ugly head in many of the family therapy sessions I lead. It is very common to link unsafe behaviors like self-harm, running away or physical aggression towards others to the pain/shame of this sense of abandonment that children feel along with many of their parents.

Claudia Black goes on to say, “Abandonment plus distorted or undefined boundaries as you are developing your worth and identity creates shame and fear.” Boundary problems such as a lack of awareness of where I end and where you begin in our feelings and thoughts are very common with our young people on our unit. In fact, we have a “Boundaries Group” dedicated to working on these important skills. The shame they feel over who they believe they are (i.e. worthless) spurs on fear – fear that people will find out how terrible they are and so “masks” are constructed to hide their true selves.

Author John Bradshaw makes a comment about this: “Parents who are out of touch with their own emotions cannot model their own emotions for their children … our true sense of self is based on our core feelings … our feelings are the primary motivating source in our lives. Without acknowledging our core feelings, we lose our sense of self. Our false selves are based on survival skills. Our false selves are like the script for a play. The script tells us what feelings we should have. We learn to accept the scripted feelings as authentic.”

Children and parents that come to us are often very guarded regarding their thoughts and feelings – presenting the false selves and making it difficult to address the hurts that are connected with their shame. Many times we can get to a turning point to look and work on this issue, but sometimes kids and/or parents become “stuck” in their treatment – unable to go through the process of healing.

So, what is the answer to dealing with this nasty feeling of shame and the toxicity that surrounds it wherever it lands? There are three things I would like to suggest to work on the shame problem.
The first is from Brown who says, “Empathy is the strongest antidote for shame … I define empathy as the skill or ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us.” One of the more useful tools on our unit is therapy groups and psycho-educational groups that our young people attend together. One of the skills they practice is empathy in the midst of sharing and hearing the stories of others. This is something we all need to give and to receive so we can realize how much we have in common and that our secrets can be shared and our worlds do not have to come crashing down.

The second thing is something John Bradshaw highlights: self-acceptance. He states, “When we are loved unconditionally, i.e. accepted just as we are, we can then accept ourselves just as we are. Self-acceptance overcomes the self-rupture of toxic shame. Self-acceptance is the way to gain our personal power. When we accept ourselves, we are unified; all our energy is centered and flows outward. Since it was personal relationships that set up our toxic shame, we need personal relationships to heal our shame. This is crucial. We must risk reaching out and looking for non-shaming relationships if we are to heal our shame. There is no other way.”

I think the hardest thing for many of us to do is to reach out to others for help. Many of us, especially people in the helping fields, have some belief that we should not ask for help, that somehow that may uncover that we are weak. Melody Beattie makes a comment about using the word “should.” She says, “Stop the ‘shoulds.’ Become aware of when we’re punishing and torturing ourselves and make a concerted effort to tell ourselves positive messages. If we should be doing something, do it. If we’re torturing ourselves, stop it. It gets easier. We can laugh at ourselves, tell ourselves we won’t be tricked, give ourselves at hug, then go about the business of living as we choose. If we have real guilt, deal with it. God will forgive us. He knows we did our best, even if it was our worst. We don’t have to punish ourselves by feeling guilty to prove to God or anyone else how much we care. We need to forgive ourselves.”

The last thing to combat shame is related to those who have children and are working at providing an environment that is not “shame friendly.” John Bradshaw states, “Shame based families operate according to the laws of social systems. When a social system is dysfunctional, it is rigid and closed. All the individuals in that family are enmeshed in a kind of trancelike frozenness. They take care of the system’s need for balance, rather than their own needs for growth.”

Having focused on family systems in my post-graduate work, I often recognize the signs of “shame-filled homes.” One of the best things parents can do is work on their own shame. This takes effort from parents to work on the skills of being open, of risking finding new relationships where there are not shame-based patterns, of giving empathy, and of practicing healthy boundaries. Once we become more competent with our empathy, boundary and self-acceptance skills as adults, we will be able to model and teach to our children.

Some are discouraged by their experiences taking risks – showing their true selves to people that are shaming and tend to not be safe people to work on these skills. Many times, that is where a therapist can work with us to deal with guilt and shame. Someone asked M. Scott Peck when he thought someone needed therapy and his response was, “when you get stuck.” So, if you feel you are stuck in shame and guilt or know someone in that situation, there are trained professionals who can be helpful. You will need someone to encourage you to embrace the pain instead of avoiding it. Do not give up looking for people who can support this difficult journey. It could be the turning point towards relational health in your life.

Mark Willems is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and serves as clinical director of Turning Point, a psychiatric residential treatment facility for adolescents at Prairie View.

Beattie, Melody, Codependent No More, Hazelden, Center City, Minnesota, 1987.
Black, Claudia, It Will Never Happen to Me, Hazelden, Center City, Minnesota, 1981.
Bradshaw, John, Healing the Shame That Binds You, Heath Communications, Deerfield Beach, Florida, 1988.
Brown, Brené, I Thought It Was Just Me, Gotham Books, New York, New York, 2007.
Brown, Brené, Daring Greatly, Gotham Books, New York, New York, 2012.
Lerner,Harriet, Fear and Other Uninvited Guests, HarperCollins, New York, New York, 2004.