“My house is such a mess. Why can't I just get it together!”; ”I forgot about my doctor's appointment. What is wrong with me?”; ”I ate too much last night and now I feel bloated and awful.”; "I'm not doing enough for my kids/partner/parent/friends. I'm so selfish!"
We’ve all been there – done things, not done things, said things, thought things that we later think we shouldn’t have. This my friends, is what we call feeling guilty.
The science behind guilt
Guilt is a common emotion that we all experience. Women, in particular, are prone to feeling guilty. According to a 2009 study published in the Spanish Journal of Psychology, women and men from three age groups (156 teenagers, 96 young people and 108 adults) were surveyed on what situations most often caused them to feel guilt (1). The researchers found that habitual guilt was higher for women than men in all three age groups, with the biggest gap in the 40-50-year-old range. This age corresponds to the "sandwich generation" years in which we may juggle taking care of teenagers with staying connected to ageing parents. Also, they found that women report more guilt than men overall, taking work calls or answer work e-mails in the evening. Finally, research shows that millennial women and millennials in general feel guilty about taking vacations.
The difference between guilt and shame
Except, I’m not sure it is guilt. Now, you may think I’m being pedantic – I would argue this kind of emotional granularity is critical for our emotional intelligence and health (check out this TED Talk by Susan David). In fact, consider this from shame researcher, Brene Brown:
“I’m just going to say it: I’m pro-guilt. Guilt is good. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behaviour. It occurs when we compare something we’ve done – or failed to do – with our personal values. The discomfort that results often motivates real change, amends and self-reflection. … If you made a mistake that really hurt someone’s feelings, would you be willing to say, ‘I’m sorry. I made a mistake?’ If you’re experiencing guilt, the answer is yes: ‘I made a mistake.’ Shame, on the other hand, is ‘I’m sorry. I am a mistake.’ Shame doesn’t just sound different than guilt; it feels different. Once we understand this distinction, guilt can even make us feel more positively about ourselves, because it points to the gap between what we did and who we are – and, thankfully, we can change what we do.”
There is little agreement, even among professional therapists, as to the exact difference between guilt and shame but there is an important point here. Whilst shame and guilt can feel very similar on the surface, they have very different effects on our behaviour.
Guilt can be thought of feeling disappointed in oneself for violating an important internal value or code of behaviour. Feeling guilty can be a healthy thing: it can open doors leading to positive behaviour change. It can be either or both. Healthy feelings of guilt motivate you to live according to your authentic values, which, in turn, can improve your relationships with others, since you are more likely to treat them with respect and do your fair share.
Shame, on the other hand, is incredibly unhealthy, causing lowered self-esteem and confidence (feelings of unworthiness) and behaviour that reinforces that self-image. It can be a debilitating emotion, driving us to self-criticism (that sh*tty committee you have in your head 24/7), self-neglect or destructive behaviours, self-sabotage, perfectionism and the list goes on. Shame is plainly based on the “shoulds” and unwritten rules and guidelines that you unknowingly set for yourself.
Shame holds us back. It paralyses us. It restricts our decision-making.
I used to be so prone to this, my instructors when I was at military intelligence school (in a former life) used to call this the “Vix spiral of despair”. I would become fixated on the fact that I had done something wrong, or realistic something that wasn’t 100% perfect, and I would allow myself to stew over it for hours, constantly plagued by worry, neglecting all the other things I was meant to be doing. I’m glad to say that with the help of some of the practices I’m going to share with you this is no longer a big feature of my life, although I recognise that it’s a familiar path there to be walked if I’m not vigilant.
“Worry is a product of the future you can’t guarantee, and guilt is a product of the past we can’t change, and all we have is moments. It doesn’t matter how long or how short those moments are, but what you do in those moments, and it’s how you’re aware of those moments that really count.” – Shailene Woodley
How to work through guilt and shame
1. Look out for the word ‘should’
It normally indicates an expectation that is either unrealistic or doesn’t align with your core values. Ask yourself who’s telling you to do that and why.
2. Be kind to yourself
Self-compassion is associated with feelings of self-worth. Imagine yourself as a small child – how would you respond to a child making a mistake? Would you yell at it and tell it was worthless or would you give it a big hug and forgive the mistake? You can continue to feel bad for every mistake you’ve ever made, or you can choose acceptance, forgiveness and compassion. You’re human. You are not perfect and that is okay.
3. Let it go
Sometimes you can’t undo the things that make us feel guilty. Instead, ask yourself “What can I learn from this?”. Torturing yourself doesn’t make you a better person. Learning does. Negative self-judgment can be an obstacle to self-improvement. The more shame you feel about your past actions and behaviours, the more your self-esteem is lowered and the less likely it is you will feel motivated to change. Forgive yourself, move on, and resolve to change your behaviour.
4. Accept your limitations
You do not make the sun rise or the earth spin on its axis. You are not responsible for everything. In the words of the 12-steps programmes, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
5. Focus on the positives
Shame and perfectionism have a negative bias. They make you pay attention to what you’re not doing right. Write a ‘self-gratitude’ diary at the end of every day – note at least three things you did that day that furthered your goals or helped someone else. This will help you overcome the negativity bias by focusing your attention on your accomplishments.
6. Be objective
Think about how an outside observer would view the situation or even ask one. Look for evidence that contradicts your version of events – our beliefs are just interpretations, not facts. Of course, if you find evidence that you have done something wrong or hurt someone, then it’s time to take responsibility, apologise and make amends.
7. Stop magnifying
With shame and guilt, we’re often irrational. How can we know if we’re being rational? Look at the intensity, duration and consequences of the negative emotions you feel. Are they appropriate? Probably not. Are you thinking about the situation in all or- nothing terms? Do you think that if you're not the perfect partner/daughter/parent you must be the worst one on the planet? Try to find the grey amid all that black and white. Try to judge your efforts in context, rather than always expecting perfection.
8. Recognise feelings of guilt and shame are counter-productive
If you’re feeling unreasonably guilty or full of shame, recognize that this is not productive. Remind yourself that you’re being overly self-critical. No one deserves to feel plagued by guilt and shame, and this thinking will only make things worse.
9. Use mindfulness to disengage with your story of guilt and shame
Firstly, it’s okay to have these feelings. They might feel awful, but they are not going to actually hurt you. Notice what the sensations of these emotions are – where do you feel them in your body? Do they have a colour, a temperature, a sound? Describe them as best you can. Then start to shift your focus to your breath and away from the thoughts in your mind. Say “breathing in” as you breathe in and “breathing out” as you breathe out. If you notice your mind returning to the thoughts, that’s okay, gently guide your attention back to your breathing. Do this for a few moments then stand up and shake it all off – literally. Movement, especially shaking, is great for shifting unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and energy.
Excessive feelings of guilt and shame can be detrimental to your mental health. If you’ve tried to overcome feelings of excessive guilt and shame, and are unable to do so on your own, please seek help from a trusted professional.
1. Etxebarria, I., Ortiz, M. J., Conejero, S. y Pascual, A. Intensity of habitual guilt in men and women: Differences in interpersonal sensitivity and the tendency towards anxious-aggressive guilt. Spanish Journal of Psychology, 2009; 12 (2): 540-554.