“Do I Have to Feel so Badly About Myself?” – The Legacies of Guilt, Shame and Anxiety

Peter Breggin, MD
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When you and I were children and we felt guilty, we knew we were bad.  We did not and could not stop to think, “I’m being made to feel guilty, but by objective ethical standards I’ve done nothing wrong.”  Instead, we felt our guilt as strongly as a kick in the stomach or a poisonous black cloud inside our head.  When we felt ashamed, we did not have the ability to escape it by telling ourselves “People are making fun of me, but I’m perfectly fine as I am.” Instead, we believed—we knew!—that we deserve to feel shriveled up and shameful to the marrow of our bones.  When we felt anxious, we did not dismiss the feeling as irrational.  Instead, we trembled or our heart palpitated, and we felt genuinely doomed.

Guilt, shame and anxiety appear in every known culture.  Neither children nor adults seem to escape feeling some of these potentially disabling emotions and probably almost everyone has experienced all three.  In my forensic experience, even the most hardened criminals who feel no guilt or shame about committing murder are nonetheless likely to feel guilty about something else, such as thinking or talking negatively about their father or mother.  They surely feel shame, and overwhelming shame may have ended up fueling, rather than inhibiting, their murderous reactions.  Meanwhile, it is highly unlikely that anyone, criminal or not, has avoided feeling anxiety.

Guilt, shame and anxiety are so universal that they must have been built into our genes by biological evolution.  That is, natural selection must have favored guilt, shame and anxiety because these emotions somehow promoted human survival and reproduction.  If so, we have to ask, “Why did biological evolution favor or promote the survival of human beings with a genetic, instinctual tendency to feel guilt, shame and anxiety?”  The detailed discussion of the theory of negative legacy emotions and how to find emotional freedom is in my latest book: Guilt, Shame and Anxiety.

Human beings have always been both extremely violent and intensely social.  Humans struggle with the inherent incompatibility between their willful or aggressive reactions and their demanding needs for personal intimacy.  Unfettered, these conflicting drives would have torn apart family life and made human survival and procreation impossible.  Our survival required built-in inhibitions on the expression of willfulness and violence in our most personal and family relationships.

Built-in inhibitory emotions that automatically suppress our willfulness and aggression in our most intimate relationships promoted family life, at least in our more primitive states of biological and cultural development.  Guilt, shame, and anxiety made children more likely to conform to their parents’ control, and it made parents less likely to unleash frustration and aggression on their children.  Like most instinctual potentials, including hunger and sex, these emotions were triggered and fashioned by environmental events and influences in infancy and early childhood, and therefore they do not operate smoothly or without glitches.

From these insights grew the theory of negative legacy emotions—that we inherit a biological tendency to react with inhibitions on our more assertive and aggressive impulses within our intimate relationships, and that these built-in capacities for guilt, shame and anxiety are then activated and shaped in early childhood to limit or restrain willfulness and violent conflict within our close family life.

Unfortunately, natural selection is a crude process that takes place at an infinitely slow pace and that usually approximates rather than achieves a perfect solution.  Natural selection for the capacity to feel guilt, shame and anxiety was not guided by rational ethical standards but by the necessities of survival and procreation.  Built into us by the crude processes of natural selection and then activated and shaped by the vagaries of our unique childhoods, these negative legacy emotions have little or nothing to do with genuine or mature ethics.  Over millions of years of evolution, they helped, however imperfectly, to moderate internal family conflict; but they serve little or no useful purpose in deciding how to live a mature adult life.

As adults, we must learn to identify and reject the influence of these negative legacy emotions, and instead seek to live by higher principles including reason and love.  To have a fulfilling life, we must rise above our evolutionary emotional legacies through the conscious exercise of our higher human potentials.  My book Guilt, Shame and Anxiety provides tests and tables to help the reader identify and overcome these unwanted, self-defeating emotions.

The concept of negative legacy emotions tells us from the start that we cannot and should not respond to our feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety as if they have a basis in either reality, or sound ethics.  Ironically, when these emotions are most intense and convincing, they are almost always associated with trauma and abuse in childhood.  Our most disabling feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety do not result from our bad or mistaken choices; they are the result of biological evolution and what was done to us as helpless children.  As I document, these emotions have such an irrational basis that the most abused children feel the most guilt, shame and anxiety, while their perpetrators often feel self-justified and entitled.

The theory of negative legacy emotions helps us take giant steps toward emotional liberation and freedom.  It tells us why we feel guilt, shame and anxiety.  It makes clear there is nothing personal or useful about feeling guilt, shame or anxiety.  It enables us to treat these emotions as primitive in nature and useless as guidelines for positive values and conduct in adulthood.  It makes clear they are self-defeating, because they are likely to automatically kick in whenever we think about being self-assertive or pursuing our own interests, regardless of the merit of our aspirations or goals.

The book asks and answers questions like “Is guilt or shame ever a good thing?” “Won’t people act badly if they don’t feel guilt and shame?”  “How does anxiety act as a form of anger management?”  “Where do our own choices as children fit in?” “Are most so-called mental illnesses the result of guilt, shame and anxiety?”

Guilt, Shame and Anxiety defines these negative emotions, shows how they act as primitive enforcers of anger management, describes many alternative methods of identifying their presence in our lives, enables us to discover our personal negative emotional profile, and shows how to reject these emotions and to triumph over them.

And now we can answer the question asked in the title, “Do I have to feel so badly about myself?” The answer is a definitive “No!”  You do not have to live with your emotions out of control.  You do not have to feel stymied by painful feelings whenever you seek to be more peaceful or relaxed, more creative, braver, more loving, more independent, or simply happier.  You do not have to live this way.  You can learn to understand, to identify, and to reject your negative legacy emotions in favor of life-enhancing principles, including sound ethics, reason and love.

26 COMMENTS

  1. Dr. Breggin,

    I am one of your biggest fans.
    But, you lost me on this one.

    You wrote:

    “Natural selection for the capacity to feel guilt, shame and anxiety was not guided by rational ethical standards but by the necessities of survival and procreation. Built into us by the crude processes of natural selection and then activated and shaped by the vagaries of our unique childhoods, these negative legacy emotions have little or nothing to do with genuine or mature ethics.”

    I disagree.
    This is not about natural selection, or genes.
    This has to do with *spiritual* development.

    You also wrote:

    “Over millions of years of evolution, they helped, however imperfectly, to moderate internal family conflict; but they serve little or no useful purpose in deciding how to live a mature adult life.”

    People feel guilt when they do something wrong for one simple reason: to keep them from continuing to do it. This takes place in both childhood and adulthood; across the lifetime.
    The conscience is part of every individual. Its development is a spiritual journey for each of us.

    Dr. Breggin, if you ever find a bigger fan, I’d like to meet them.
    But I think you really get this one wrong.

    Best,

    Duane Sherry
    discoverandrecover.wordpress.com

    • There is no contradiction between biological and spiritual development. Why it is beyond doubt (strictly scientific, even if non-conventional, research demostrates it) that we do possess non-local, disembodied core of consciousness which survives bodily death, it is also beyond any doubt that here and now, during our local and embodied lives, we are somatic, biophysical entities, and our psyches are strongly influenced by our organisms, including our heredity and sexuality.

      People who are genuinely spiritual, yet also scientifically and philosophically literate, do not feel any conflict between development of our spirits, our minds and our bodies. Such development should be integral and synthetic – or it will miserably fail. That’s why Breggin’s book is endorsed by parapsychologist and humanistic psychologist, notable member of the Parapsychological Association Stanely Krippner, as well as by transpersonal and humanistic psychologist, one of the leading members of the Esalen Institute Michael Cornwall.

      As for shame and guilt, sometimes they may be the warning signs of one’s true conscience; but most times (the vast and overwhelming majority of times, really) they are nothing but distrurbing, irrevelant and unnecessary manifestations of conditioned societal morality – which is artificial and arbitrary, and ultimately illusive.

      Another person who effectively combined deep sprituality with sharp philosophical reasoning and vast scientific and scholarly erudition – Robert Anton Wilson – had described morality as fully and cynically as possible:

      __________________________________________________________

      I regard “ideology” and “morality” as the two most dangerous forces on this planet. About “ideology” I have expressed my suspicions elsewhere; here I will only mention John Adams’s verdict that shortening “ideology” to “idiocy” would save some space and add a great deal to clarity. He had the French Revolution in mind, but “ideologists” haven’t changed much since then, have they?

      As for “morality” — or “moralic acid” as Nietzsche called it — I consider it the major cause of almost all the major atrocities not caused by “ideology.” This wonderful invention, “morality,” allows people — normal, ordinary people — to do things so cruel and violent that they could never bring themselves to do them for selfish reasons. What the sociopath and sadist do for fun, the “moralist” does on behalf of “duty” or “justice.”

      “Morality,” today, allows Moslems to stone women to death, as it once fueled the Christian witch-hunts. “Morality” has excused every war, and glorified some of them. “Morality” constantly plots to subvert the Constitutional guarantee of free speech. “Morality” inspires gay-bashing and the bombing of women’s clinics. Why, without “morality” we might all suddenly go stark staring sane.

      My vision of Utopia would include a hell of a lot more kindness and mercy than we have now, and a hell of a lot less “morality.’
      __________________________________________________________

      One can hardly state it better.

      • Well, then you have to distinguish society’s morality from individual ethics. For one’s ethics and conscience to develop one needs strong negative emotions and guilt and shame, in addition to empathy, are necessary for that to occur – they give a person negative feedback when they do something wrong that comes from the inside.

    • As for the evolution – I agree that these feelings are part of what allows us to live in highly structured societies. Which may be good – there are obvious advantages to civilization – but also bad as these feelings are a tool to enforce social order no matter the quality of it.
      That being said I completely agree on:
      “People feel guilt when they do something wrong for one simple reason: to keep them from continuing to do it.”
      People who are allegedly unable to feel guilt or shame (necessary ingredients of conscience) are popularly called psychopaths or sociopaths. I would not advocate for freeing humanity from these emotions.

  2. I also generally admire Dr. Breggin’s work but feel he goes to far with this latest. There’s certainly a need for guilt, shame, and anxiety to put into context, and it’s important to learn that they are emotional responses to things but aren’t inherently representative of truth. However, I don’t think a complete disregard for these feelings—treating them as evolutionary baggage that needs to be left behind—is the right approach. None of these “negative legacy emotions” is wholly negative. In fact, all can be markedly positive when part of an integrated emotional life that includes moderators such as reason and love (which Breggin mentions).

    • In fact they are necessary for people to develop personal ethics and conscience. Nothing teaches you better not to hurt others than feeling shame when your parents scold you for that or when you feel guilty seeing the victim crying (a bit of empathy also helps). Sure, these feelings can be pathological just like any feeling – it depends on the context. If someone has toxic parents who shame him/her for who they are all their childhood they are likely to develop problems related to shame. It does not mean shame is bad.

  3. In my encounters with Dr. Peter Breggin via his books, web sites, media writings, appearances and other noble actions to fight against the harm done by biopyschiatry and warn the public as well at great cost to himself, he has impressed me as a very noble, ethical, honest person who advocates for human empathy, fulfilling one’s spiritual and other higher purposes and the greatest level of morality. Thus, I was initially confused myself as Dr. Breggin started this article explaining that more primitive societies needed more biological forms of shame, guilt and anxiety for “social control” to avoid excess violence, crimes and other serious infractions for the safety of families and their societies and then seemed to say that these emotions are not only useless, but harmful.

    However, as I read further, I saw that Dr. Breggin was not saying such emotions are useless, but rather, that for them to be useful, one has to develop one’s ethics or morals in a conscious way with “good enough” parenting and other influences to seriously consider what is right and wrong rather than just acting on primitive biological or animal like instincts that can often lead us astray in human societies that are not the natural state that animals enjoy. At the same time, though our more aggressive behaviors can be harmful, they can also be very helpful as long as we harness them so they can work for productive, ethical purposes. Dr. George Simon addresses this issue in his great book, Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing, which explains the difference between covert aggressives who manipulate their victims with the pretense of good motives to exploit and harm them and those who control their aggressive impulses to produce high quality work or goals without harming others.

    Though I loathe the junk science DSM claims in the following article, it does address the work of psychologists in dealing with very damaging excess or undeserved guilt, anxiety and shame that can come from families, schools, societies and one’s self for many reasons that can be intentional or simply unconscious intergenerational carryovers. I think this is what Dr. Breggin is addressing in this article rather than advocating for such a lack of guilt or shame, we would all act like psychopaths or sociopaths with no conscience or empathy:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/childhood-guilt-adult-depression/384176/

    Here is a great article about theories of moral development in children that shows that there is much more to developing a good conscience, ethics and morality than relying on one’s base animal instincts or abusive, controlling people or systems:

    http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=118

    Even in trying to write this post, I am finding this issue difficult to convey, so I will recommend the reviewers at Amazon who give Dr. Breggin’s new book very high praise:

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/1616141492/?tag=googhydr-20&hvadid=64060528093&hvpos=1t1&hvexid=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=662841306962661546&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=b&hvdev=c&ref=pd_sl_7wttlnanvf_b

    Since I was brought up Catholic in their most rigid, guilt tripping times with an over zealous family and community, I can truly appreciate the need for a book like the above because some guilt and shame is imposed or inflicted due to ignorance or less than noble motives by the guilt trippers, which causes more harm than good as Dr. Breggin explains. I can see where I and others with similar backgrounds could greatly benefit from this book and intend to buy it myself.

    C.S. Lewis has lamented that in modern times many people have mistaken “niceness” for ethics and goodness, which are far from the same thing. We now have the tyranny of “political correctness” as well. Lewis also demonstrated that ethics and morality can be twisted to meet the eyes of the beholder with the following famous quotation:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

    ― C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology (Making of Modern Theology)

    Doesn’t the above quotation remind you of the very abuses perpetrated by main stream biopsychiatry like brain damaging drugs and ECT that Dr. Breggin has bravely fought to expose and change as the “conscience of psychiatry?” In my opinion, it fits perfectly in that biopsychiatry sure tries to cure people against their will of states we may not regard as diseases, which compares to being treated like infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals, which comprises an intolerable insult. The fact that biopsychiatry has engaged in such immoral behavior while hijacking the world to impose their own version of morality and ethics around the globe is one of the greatest outrages and crimes against humanity ever. This is all too clear when one considers that psychiatry’s eugenics theories invented to aid and abet the robber barons of their times past and present were used by them to instigate the Nazi Holocaust and many other past and recent ethnic cleansings that have expanded to target anyone who can be exploited by the biopsychiatry/Big Pharma/Business/Government cartel including children and toddlers no less. Dr. Breggin has written a superb article exposing psychiatry’s contribution to the Nazi Holocaust with the article quoting those who presided over the Nuremburg Trials who acknowledged that without psychiatry, the Nazi Holocaust would probably never have happened.

    Finally, I think if one reads Dr. Breggin’s article carefully, it makes a great deal of sense that in our complicated human society, we cannot just rely on our initial animal type instincts, but rather, we must work our whole lives to develop our own value system of ethics, morality, spirituality and other higher purposes to develop our full human potential.

    ― C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology (Making of Modern Theology)

    • Donna

      Thank you for your post. I appreciate what you state here and I think you’ve helped clarify what Dr. Breggin says. Intuitively I know exactly what he’s saying but I couldn’t move from my internal understanding and experience, which says that he’s correct, to putting it in written form with the right words. Thanks again for your post.

      • Stephen,

        Thanks for your comment and validation of my post. I think the issue is that the whole idea of ethics, morality, conscience and their related positive and negative emotions is a very challenging, emotional topic. Thus, I think when we read an article like Dr. Breggin’s here on this sensitive issue, our brains can be hijacked with our own personal experiences and prejudices that make it difficult to give the article a fair assessment unless we are aware of such tendencies. Note the very different reactions to the same article by Dr. Breggin. Obviously, this is a volatile topic with which decent people are apt to struggle unlike the psychopaths/sociopaths/malignant narcissists or just plain evil people in our midst.

        And if you reread the article it is obvious that Dr. Breggin is speaking of unwarranted, undeserved guilt children can experience in the beginning and not guilt that they should feel for doing real wrong like harming others.

        I want to also thank you again for your many wise, insightful comments based on your own personal and work experience. They have helped to validate my own reality time after time, so I hope you keep sharing them.

        Take care.

    • “To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

      ― C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology (Making of Modern Theology)

      That’s such an awesome quote.

  4. “Guilt, shame and anxiety appear in every known culture. ”

    Actually, no this is incorrect.

    In a genuine dharmic (ethical) cultural context (rare to find in today’s world) the emphasis is on self-respect, honour and contentment: opposites of guilt, shame and anxiety.

    There is no substitute for virtue – forgiveness and chastity are two key virtues.

    In the Semitic world-view infant genitalia is mutilated, animals are eaten, people are thought to be born in sin, wars consist of genocidal armies that use rape as a weapon of war, murder all the men and steal all of their resources – in short a master/slave model of human interaction. Their “god” is jealous and angry! Wow!

    These crimes against Nature show up as “mental illness”. The whole system is sick. Ultimately we can only reform our own self. A sound mind in a sound body.

    The master/slave mentality will create guilt, shame and anxiety. This is not how it is supposed to be. Just because everyone lives like this does not make this the standard or the ideal. Psychiatry is evil!

    However Dr. Breggin, you are an exception – thank you for speaking out against the torture through drugging of the most vulnerable.

    Dismantle psychiatry. Teach philosophy in the schools and communities. The art of rhetoric and civilized communication must be taught. Physical education ought to be the first subject of the school day.

    The most important practical thing I can suggest is learn to be one’s own true best friend.
    Don’t ever submit to any form of oppression. Learn practical skills so as to be able to earn a living in an ethical manner. Eat an apple a day to stay away from “doctors”.