People generally think of guilt and shame as emotions, however, whilst they have emotional components, they are in my opinion rather more thought processes than emotions. Guilt is the belief that “I have done something wrong,” or “I have not done something, that I should have done.” Shame is a deep undertow of the belief that, “There is something wrong with me.”
Both processes lead to disruption in our interpersonal relationships, they serve to drive wedges between people. Both are regularly used by parents as control mechanisms. Through guilt and shame, we can manipulate our children to do the things that we want them to do, however these are a toxic process and lead to putting distance in the relationship. Later in life we have internalised guilt and shame as inappropriate means of controlling ourselves. Both guilt and shame lead to us putting emotional distance between us and others.
When we know that we have done something wrong the appropriate behaviour is to do something to make reparation if we can, and to make an apology (note: an apology without the willingness to make amends is only going part way towards repairing the damage).
Sometimes there is no way to ‘put it right’ and then we need to forgive ourselves and move on. This is the healthy response to experiencing guilt. When we use guilt as an inner bargaining tool to keep ourselves depressed or miserable, we are doing a disservice to what is a healthy process and using it to keep ourselves stuck.
Similarly, when we use guilt as a tool to manipulate others, we fail to demonstrate respect and are not acting with authenticity. This negative use of guilt blocks the healthy grieving process; you can read more of this in my book Fore-play, Fair-play and Foul-play.
Shame is an insidious tool of social control. Most of us will have experienced times when others attempted to shame us, and how we felt in such moments. Many will also have experienced shaming themselves, a process that often involves inner dialogues, where we put ourselves down and undermine our self-confidence.
At the foundations of shame is the belief that “there is something wrong with me.” When we experience this, we simply want to hide the ‘shameful’ truth from others, so we withdraw into impotency, self-doubt, and anxiety states. Shame is way more toxic than guilt because when we are ashamed, we do not want to engage with others to solve the problem, we just accept our perceived inadequacy.
If you are prone to experiencing guilt and / or shame, I recommend you think about entering counselling or psychotherapy. Once exposed to the light of reality and we can accept empathy and compassion from others, we can let go of these two misery makers and enter fully into healthy relationships with ourselves and others.
In my book “What’s love got to do with it?” I make the point that the most important form of love is Philautia, self-love. This is not narcissism; it is the bedrock of being able to love others. To love oneself, we need to eliminate shame and react with responsibility towards guilt. When we love ourselves, we feel self-confident, we are free to show others we love them and to enter relationships as equals. Two people who have Philautia can enter the form of love where there is no room for guilt and shame.
To read more on this subject, grab yourself a copy of my book here or get in touch for an informal discussion with me personally.