It’s Possible — and Beneficial — to Stop Feeling Guilt and Shame

Michael Cornwall, PhD
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I believe the emotions of guilt and shame are culturally induced negative emotional experiences that almost all of us are tragically made to feel from infancy or childhood on. But guilt and shame are not now, nor ever were, hard-wired human emotional necessities.

Instead, I’ll argue that they are always destructive emotional experiences with no inherent individual or social value, unless the creation and sustaining of self-hatred and/or the practice of controlling other people via emotional manipulation is somehow of value. I’ll also try and show how the rejection and extinction of the experience of guilt and shame is a revolutionary act of self-love, and that refusing to induce guilt and shame in others is also a revolutionary act of love and compassion.

I believe it’s possible to not experience the emotions of guilt and shame and still be a principled, moral, ethical, empathic and compassionate person.

I believe it’s possible for our families, our relationships and our society to even more humanely function, and be safer, without the traditional injurious practices that inflict the emotions of guilt and shame on ourselves and others.

I intentionally started exploring the subjective phenomenon of guilt and shame and began trying to understand the power of those two destructive emotions in earnest almost 35 years ago. This exploration began out of necessity when I started seeing a very suicidal new client in therapy who was under the most extreme burden of self-loathing shame and self-condemning and self-punishing guilt that I’d ever seen a person suffer until then, or since.

Any attempt to engage them in the most neutral seeming and benign conversation — such as my saying “the weather is pleasant today” — would invariably cause the person to have immediate shame- and guilt-fueled associations about both their shameful unworthiness and how they deserved a harsh judgement of guilt, and punishment.

They would respond by saying something like “I feel like other people are more able and worthy to enjoy a pleasant day than I am. If you knew me, you’d know I’m so much more a failure and pathetic loser of a person than you could ever imagine, and that I probably deserve all the worst days possible, even to burn in hell for everything I’ve done wrong.”

These kinds of intense feelings were repeatedly expressed verbally to me, feelings that erupted out of the overpowering presence of the emotions of guilt and shame within. It wasn’t possible for me to be present with this person without quickly realizing the obvious, tragic fact: I was sitting with someone who first and foremost was clearly being tormented by their emotional experience of incredible guilt and shame. What they were repeatedly expressing to me wasn’t a form of healing catharsis. It was a series of re-traumatizing self-attacks.

Part of that torment was the accompanying emotion of fear, and an existential dread of isolation, that are always there too when the emotions of guilt and shame completely take over our psyches and our very beings.

Because of the tormented guilt- and shame-fueled associations that filled every response to every question I gently asked, or gentle statement that I made, I soon decided to stop triggering those intense emotional memories and real time associations, and simply try to be present and humbly caring while remaining mostly quiet. Instead of trying to ask questions or begin a conversation, I found myself drawn to be quite silent, while holding the purposeful intention to be compassionately focused on the suffering person I was sitting right there with.

I noticed in that open-hearted silence that unbidden, fitting words rose into my awareness, and that I started saying to myself positive and caring things about the person I was with, phrases like “You are a very good person,” “I’m very sorry you are suffering,” and, then; “I hope your emotions of guilt and shame will ease and become less and less.”

As I sat there and said these things to myself, I realized that my facial expressions and eyes were communicating a silent message of caring, acceptance and good will.

In that quiet space, I sensed that a little feeling of safety must be emerging between us because the person’s face seemed to relax a bit. The downcast, shame-filled eyes and bowed head began to ease, and as we went on to meet in this sanctuary of mostly quiet companionship for 2 or 3 hours a week, after a month or so I realized my intuition about mostly being quietly present in a caring way was helpful.

So, instead of pursuing the normal practice of asking questions and initiating conversation, as I’d been taught to do in my therapy training, it happened that in response to our quiet times together, the person gradually began to tentatively offer a few words of their own, and then sentences, and then to be silent again as I responded with words very minimally — and in the most gentle way possible.

But as weeks and months went by, and as they grew to more and more comfortably talk about whatever they chose to bring to our meetings, an atmosphere of safety built up because they were always free to set the pace.

Gradually, a shy smile and even laughter expressed the person’s shifting and organically emerging emotional experience. Then I found that after months of patiently waiting for it to emerge, I began to be trusted with what I had imagined were the extreme past traumas that were the genesis of so much shame and guilt.

These core revelations of a very painful past were safely expressed in the trusting relationship we had grown to share, and were responded to in the spirit of empathy and compassion that served to hold the pain and grief and rage that could then flow freely, openly unencumbered by the cruel legacy of internalized shame and guilt.

One day, after about a year and a half of our time together, the person said they felt much better and wanted to taper off our frequent meetings. They said a feeling of self-acceptance had grown, a peace of mind, and that they didn’t feel self-hatred and depression. I’m emotionally moved right now as I’m remembering the afternoon over three decades ago when the person came to our last meeting. I remember the small bouquet of flowers they gave me, and the full, clear-eyed smile of self-worth that shone like a light as we said goodbye.

A great gift I learned from knowing this wonderful person was that I and the other people I served also needed to be freer from the emotions of shame and guilt. Through knowing a person who had been in the dire grip of shame and guilt, I had finally come to understand that those emotions had wounded me in powerful ways a long time before, in own my childhood, and still were.

So, I began my work towards this aspect of seeking inner freedom by deciding to begin saying an emphatic “No!” whenever I was tipped off that guilt and shame were present.

I’d know it was shame if my self-talk would start saying something shaming — like “That was really stupid, Michael!” — after I had misplaced my car keys or made some other mistake that happens in the course of a busy day. If I more viciously started shaming and putting myself down for failing at something big or small I’d also say “no!”

Life certainly has its share of unavoidable personal failures, both public and private.

But it’s not shame-worthy to fail. I religiously began to refuse to give shame the power to belittle, scorn or devalue me when I failed.

If a memory came up unbidden of something I’d done, whether recently or in the past, that had hurt myself or someone else, and I found myself beginning to judge myself, and call myself names, saying “How could you have been such an awful, thoughtless and selfish jerk to have done that Michael!” — I’d again emphatically say “No!” and, to my surprise and relief, the verbal guilt attack would stop. It often would then begin again but if I kept saying no, the bullying and judgement guilt attack would finally just fade out and stop.

In that first year, I ended up making a solemn vow to myself that I’d always say no to guilt and shame. I also decided to help others get free of it if I could.

But being really free also meant not just saying no if I started feeling and expressing it towards my self. It also meant saying no to my own laying it on others, as well as saying no to others if anyone tried to lay a guilt or shame trip on me.

I’ve been working daily on keeping that vow for almost 35 years.

What a relief it is to claim the right to refuse the emotions guilt and shame. I believe every person I’ve seen in therapy since also benefits from learning about the destructive power of guilt and shame, and the simple way to start eliminating those emotions from their lives. It turns out “no” really can be a complete sentence!

But why is guilt and shame so ingrained in our culture? Why are almost all children made to feel these two emotions in the course of growing up?

I think the social Darwinism that pits us as competitors, if not enemies, in the quest for material wealth, status and success is a huge shame-making engine in our society. The cruel shaming, shunning, devaluing and name-calling words that come out against those who fail to meet the arbitrary markers of success echo in all of our minds as shame grips us.

“Loser,” “weirdo,” “freak,” “pathetic failure,” “stupid,” “such a joke,” “nutcase,” “psycho,” “despicable,” “you make me sick,” “contemptible,” “disgusting,” “mental patient,” “crazy,” “dropout,” “deviant,” etc, etc.

Our always classist, often racist, sexist, and dog-eat-dog society brings the words above, and the emotion of shame that birthed them into our lives every day.

Our children are graded to be be “F” students or “A” students. Winners and losers; survival of the fittest. The “othering” emotion of shame that makes us see others as defective and alien, as lesser, shameful beings because of their sexuality, religion, race, etc — essentially, people we would be ashamed to be like —this emotion gives birth to Social Darwinism, eugenics and genocide.

Then, enter guilt. I think that guilt is the other side of the same emotional coin as shame. Do they ever really get completely unattached?

Guilt leaves the zone of ostracism, disgust, and devaluing to the emotion of shame, as guilt adds on the more damming layer of condemnation, judgement, punishment.

Guilt brings us the wound of character assassination, an inner court where we turn on ourselves like prosecuting attorneys, to prove not just how shameful we are, but worse; how we are bad, wrong, immoral, sinful, hideous, carnal, dishonest, unfaithful. Deserving of punishment, of being exiled, of being made outcast, annihilated, executed by our own hand, even damned to hell.

But if we don’t have shame and guilt to keep us in check and to scare us into performing, succeeding and obeying, won’t we become irredeemable beings, sociopaths, if not lesser outright losers and failures?

The good news is that remorse is an emotion that is good, healthy, and healing, and can replace the function for which guilt has been employed. If we feel and express genuine remorse when we hurt ourselves or others, there’s no need to feel guilt. We can take responsibility, make amends, seek forgiveness, reconnect — and do all that without self-condemnation, self-judgement or self-punishment.

Shame is the same. It can easily be ameliorated, and stopped, if instead we bring the balm of self-acceptance to ourselves and others. The liberating acceptance that doesn’t feel any self-contempt and disgust, and doesn’t seek to shun ourselves and others through shame. The radical self-love that defeats shame knows that even when we fail, we are doing our best. We accept ourselves with all our limitations, and in so doing open the door to the light of accepting and celebrating our gifts and talents.

Instead of allowing room for shame and guilt, we can practice only giving ourselves the gifts of the positive and healing emotions of heartfelt remorse, self-love, and love for others.

I’m hoping that someday, guilt and shame will go back into the recesses of our human history as our culture evolves into an era of enhanced freedom.
A future era that allows those two emotions to finally be more clearly seen as the invention of the frightened souls of our ancestors — our ancestors who were blindly seeking order and safety by unwittingly committing emotional violence against our sacred birthright of emotional freedom.

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50 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, yes, and YES. Bravo, Michael. Now, please let’s send this message to the “mental health” systems. These are their weapons, to guilt and shame, and they are used and projected aggressively. It is all tied up with marginalization of our fellow global citizens. Some people are pushed hard to be made to feel as though they don’t “fit in.” That can lead to all sorts of problems, including chronic psychological torture.

    Unfortunately, we are bombarded with these messages from media and communities, it is a form of oppression, to use these psychological tools. I was raised on guilt, so it was best to not push anyone’s buttons in life. Can you tell me how this is possible? We’re all responsible for our own feelings, not those of others. And I say this with no guilt, whatsoever!

    Thanks, Michael, I think you deliver a vital message for good health and healing here.

  2. “the rejection and extinction of the experience of guilt and shame is a revolutionary act of self-love”

    People need to feel their feelings, even when they are negative. What you are putting out Michael, is a doctrine of denial. This is harmful and dangerous.

    You seem to think that it is elevated. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    What you are putting out humiliates and shames those you direct it at.

    http://www.alice-miller.com/en/the-essential-role-of-an-enlightened-witness-in-society-2/

    Nomadic

  3. I agree fully with what Oldhead has posted,
    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/09/dear-son/#comment-95241

    “In reality the “mental health” system exists primarily to control the disgruntled populace, not to help us with our pain. By redefining our natural reactions to oppression as issues with our own “mental health” the psychiatric system functions on behalf of the prison industrial complex to persuade people that “there’s nothing wrong with us, it must be you.”

    Michael, you are making people wrong for feeling angry, guilty, and shameful. What you are doing to people is WRONG! If you do it to a child, especially if the child is not really there voluntarily, then that is child abuse.

    Nomadic

  4. Even if you push a cork up your anus to overcome the guilt and shame of what comes out of it (and for some, what goes into it) you will even still be left with the guilt and shame of having inserted a cork up your anus.

    The point we are making here, that’s me, your reading eyes, and any third party you care to include, is that guilt and shame are necessary assets.

  5. Thank you Michael for your thoughts.I get the shame part but as a parent Guilt does come in handy though I also understand Alice Miller’s perspective that Nomadic brought up.
    By confrontation with shame came mostly from my experience with psych hospitalizations.
    I had issues before but I learned to hate myself
    The staff and docs were dismissive at best and rejecting and abusive at worst
    There was no care in all definitions of that word
    The old concept of TLC was gone wiped away forced out by heartless beau rescues and biological psychiatry.

  6. Since I was a child I internalized through my parents actions towards me along with siblings proof that I was worthless, a horrible person, stupid, ugly, and the list goes on and the traumatic events that I saw and that happened to me gave me a double dose of shame, guilt, and humiliation. Some recent events at a Mental Health Clinic I was going to only served to reinforce these beliefs about myself. The client you describe sounds very similar to me, unfortunately it’s difficult to find someone who really understands and who won’t add to my shame.

    Most of my life I’ve felt I don’t fit in or that I’m accepted for who I am. It’s as though I’m always singled out for humiliation, rejection, and exclusion. I feel that not many people if any at all like me especially after they get to know me better, this really effects my innersoule, I feel based on other’s actions or lack of caring I truly am a pos. On a intellectual level I know that I project my own self-hatred on to others believing they dislike me as much as I dislike myself but in the heart it’s so hard to overcome this especially when people constantly reinforce that internal message “You’re worthless and don’t belong”.

  7. We can take responsibility, make amends, seek forgiveness, reconnect — and do all that without self-condemnation, self-judgement or self-punishment.

    Suppose I hold up a drug store and shoot the clerk, then have an epiphany, experience remorse and go through all the steps above, avoiding self-condemnation, judgement or punishment. Inconveniently, the legal system is still very much into condemnation, judgement and punishment. So it’s sort of a pyrrhic victory sitting in prison with a positive self-image, wouldn’t you say? 🙂

  8. Taking one of the article writer’s examples and looking at it from a more practical standpoint. Misplacing one’s keys. “You bloody idiot” says the bowlderised inner voice. “You silly billy.”

    Because one has been lapsadaisical (a wonderful word I’m sure I hae not misspelled but which is being shamed by the automatic spellchecker as erroneous)…

    As my dear other-half has been reminding me for some time: there is a place for everything, you nincompoop!

    Now, whenever I have finished using a key and am about to place it down where it doesn’t belong I hear her shaming voice in my head. “Put it on the keyhook, you nincompoop!” and I am grateful for the shaming, because I put it on the key hook, invariably, and no longer waste hours of my life hunting for the key.

    And when I have been slightly more abrasive than the situation generally permits, I suffer terrorising shame and guilt, for a little bit. Then shrug it off as an unwanted negativising inner injunction, and go on ahead in life making the same blunders, upsetting the fragile and the sensitive with too-much frankness and verbal honesty.

    A society without shaming and guilt-inducing inner thoughts would be an interesting one, without a doubt. It would probably be paradise for the psychopathic.

  9. Hi Michael, I agree with most of what you say–particularly the inculcated sense of shame for not succeeding in the social rat race–the Social Darwinian paradigm.

    I remember the poignant passage in The Politics of Experience where Laing quotes Jules Henry on the humiliations inflicted on students (on “Boris” specifically) in the competitive environment in which students learn the zero-sum game. Henry concludes that “to be successful in this society one has to learn to dream of failure.” I think you are referring to inapprpriate self-hated rather than to guilt or shame that is appropriate

    I think we would all agree here at MIA to replace retributive justice with restorative justice. The former clearly implies that the perpetrator is evil–and usually is seen by many people as irredeemable. But even restorative justice must involve a sense of shame and guilt–with the hope of recovering one’s lost integrity, a desire to be forgiven. I don’t see how reconciliation can take place without these emotions.

    You write “But if we don’t have shame and guilt to keep us in check and to scare us into performing, succeeding and obeying, won’t we become irredeemable beings, sociopaths, if not lesser outright losers and failures?

    “The good news is that remorse is an emotion that is good, healthy, and healing, and can replace the function for which guilt has been employed. If we feel and express genuine remorse when we hurt ourselves or others, there’s no need to feel guilt. We can take responsibility, make amends, seek forgiveness, reconnect — and do all that without self-condemnation, self-judgement or self-punishment.”

    But if you look up remorse in dictionary it is not distinct from guilt and shame. Do you mean “regret”? Take a case that has become common. Many soldiers return from US wars tormented by remorse for having killed civilians, probably under orders. (It’s far worse if they have no remorse.). In the 1960s many became anti-war activists.

    Regret seems an anemic, shallow and ego-centric emotion–not appropriate to the severity of the violation. Shame and guilt bond us to the Other we have harmed. Would you be inclined to forgive someone who had harmed your loved one, if they felt only regret, if they were not disturbed in the depth of their soul? Shame and guilt are spiritual feelings and I don’t see how one can have a communal order without them–unless everyone was perfect. Our society today IS run by greedy sociopathic egotists and elitists…

    I think it makes more sense to reject the Augustinian tradition, as Mathew Fox did, and affirm original blessing. To put it in theological terms one is created “in the image of God.” This image cannot be destroyed, although s St Gregory if Nyssa said, it can be OBSCURED by sin. The process of restoring the image, must involve remorse (shame, guilt) and making amends and seeking forgiveness. All of these feelings and actions contribute to our living up to our calling as ministers, ambassadors, of viceregents of God/Goddess.

    The calling and the potential (the image of God) remain, regardless of the crimes one has committed–I think this is the main truth obscured by the mental death system, which offers such a reductionist view of humanity–as biochemical machines– which dismisses the idea of a vocation, let alone a divine calling. In the light of this sense of divine calling, remorse can be even greater–one has “fallen short of the glory of God.” But this can become an inspiration to make up for one’s crimes, and actualize the image of God in one’s soul, one’s psyche.
    Seth
    http://www.sethHfarber.com

  10. Other dictionaries (Mirriam-Webster) define remorse as including feeling of guilt.
    Well you clarified what you mean about remorse–distinguishing it from regret.
    Yes there is a lot that comes up if one googles “guilt vs remorse.”
    “As nouns the difference between remorse and guilt is that remorse is a feeling of regret or sadness for doing wrong or sinning while guilt is responsibility for wrongdoing.. awareness of having done wrong”
    http://wikidiff.com/guilt/remorse.
    It’s revealing that guilt means both the objective determination that the subject was culpable of wrong-doing and the subjective painful awareness of
    having done something wrong. I am thinking of real criminals in prison–with whom I have no personal experiences, or soldiers who have killed civilians. I don’t know if you have worked with them but I think it’s very different than the experience of the mad or the worried well who are often afflicted with guilt for merely existing.
    The latter are burdened with the painful legacy of
    hundreds of years of an Augustinian culture, IN City of God Augustine
    declared ALL people deserved to burn in hell eternally, and that the souls of all perople were spiritually diseased, tainted, a viewpoint reaffirmed by Calvin and Luther– and in secular somewhat diluted form by Freud. They were guilty not for sins they committed but sins Adam committed–or in Freud’s theory the sins that their parents committed. Augustine said even the unborn actually committed the original sin “in Adam.” So today many are afflicted not by genuine guilt but by self-loathing and the feeling that one is bad and
    diseased. You give a good example of how they think””I feel like other people are more able and worthy to enjoy a pleasant day than I am. If you knew me, you’d know I’m so much more a failure and pathetic loser of a person than you could ever imagine, and that I probably deserve all the worst days possible, even to burn in hell for everything I’ve done wrong.”
    For the former group– of criminals or soldiers– I would think both remorse and guilt (and shame) are necessary for healing. Remorse implies responsibility. We don’t feel remorse for a crime committed by another. Although if it is against someone we know we can feel deep empathy and regret. An other focused restorative remorse is one side of the picture. We want Lt Calley (let alone his sociopathic superiors) and Eichmann to feel guilt as well as sorrow and empathy–because they degraded themselves as well as those they harmed. Instead of self-hatred
    it could be–perhaps that should be the therapeutic task– a disappointment with oneself. Instead of a punitive attack on oneself there should be sorrow and mourning for the loss of the innocent self. Should there not? Perhaps you would call that remorse, rather than guilt.
    \
    I saw a documentary on TV about restorative justice. The most interesting story was of the relationship between a woman who lost her son and a criminal who killed him. Strangely enough they became best friends. The criminal was car thief not a sociopath or a cold blooded murderer/ Nevertheless in his effort to escape and steal a car he shot a man in his way and her died. It seems this was the most important event in his life as well as in the mother’s. I doubt there would have been the deep reconciliation between the two if the killer had not expressed and felt guilt as well as remorse. He became the substitute for the son she could never bring back–and she visited him every week.
    Seth
    Seth Farber, Ph.D.

    • Just a tangential aside:

      Remorse implies responsibility. We don’t feel remorse for a crime committed by another.

      It’s hard to read this without thinking of some innocent people in prison who have served their minimum sentences and would have been paroled, except that a condition of being approved for such is they are expected to “express remorse” for something they didn’t do, something they can’t bring themselves to do as it would imply guilt. In essence they are refused parole because they refuse to lie. So much for justice.

  11. Michael, people feel anger. It is just that way. And usually anger is what people are most afraid of.

    But I agree with you that guilt and shame are something which are induced. But never the less, they are not really avoidable. Once one sees how they were induced, one is most likely going to feel pain and anger, over what was done to them. People must be free to fell this as it comes.

    Nomadic

  12. When I kill a bug like a mosquito or these large flying cockroaches that somehow find their way in my clean house, I verbalize a Buddhist chant to relieve the soul of the bug from being reincarnated as a bug.

    On another note, having worked with and for psychopaths and sociopaths for a career, teaching a psychopath or sociopath a technique to eliminate guilt or shame may be unproductive as it removes the singular thing that discourages them from committing an antisocial act.

  13. I ponder my situation, and these notions of guilt and shame.

    If it wasn’t for the fear of being exposed to the guilt and shame of drugging a person without their knowledge and planting a knife on them to obtain a police referral to Mental Health Services, I don’t believe there would have been any need to arrange a killing in an ED. Do the crimes etc…….

    By me attending a police station with the proof of the crimes though, the possibility of exposure would have been not only an internal feeling of guilt and shame, but public shaming. Reputation on the line. So a conflict arises where you either (a) live with the public guilt and shame or (b) arrange for a woopsie in an ED. Quite a position to be in, and I know what was planned, and how frustrating it must have been when it was thwarted.

    Going to be quite a test for psychiatry when the fraud is exposed publicly.

    • I guess the point i’m trying to make is that the psychologist (and co conspirator) could have lived with their internal guilt and shame about Stupefying to commit an indictable offense (kidnapping), but public exposure would have a major effect on this. Their pride would have been injured. Much easier to dispose of the person who is seeking assistance from police.

      Find a way of making the citizen into a “patient” (attend an ED) and thus remove any human or civil rights, and a bit of fiddling with the paperwork (restrain and inject in a situation when a little too much is administered, and document it as PRN so it appears consensual) and reputation is saved.

      With no Criminal Code applying to “patients” what are the police to do other than hand the victim back to the criminal? And with fraudulent documents just laying around for the Coroner? Guild interests are protected.

  14. Hi Michael,

    While I agree with much of what you have written here, I disagree with your statement that shame isn’t hardwired. It seems to me that shame is the “social pain” we feel when excluded, and that it is as natural as fear and grief. Guilt is much more “sophisticated” and socially constructed. For example, scholars have argued that the ancient Greeks didn’t experience guilt—for them, shame worked well enough as a means of social control.

    The question for me isn’t whether it’s natural, but whether it still has a necessary function. It’s like the stress response— “fight/flight/freeze/fold.” Over and over, I read stress researchers who say, “Of course, we need the stress response in some situations.” But the whole basis of aikido training is that we don’t ever “need” it—no matter how hardwired it is. If hardwired responses no longer serve us, we need to learn—and rewire our brains—so that we have replacement responses available.

    I believe shame is associated with attachment. Most attachment research these days emphasizes that adult attachment needs are hardwired and that, if they aren’t met, people “naturally” suffer. Tell that to Tibetan Buddhist practitioners who have just spent three years alone, meditating in a cave! They will probably laugh.

    What’s more, when you do fMRIs on them, you see that areas of their brains associated with compassion are huge, compared with normal controls. But they exhibit no attachment needs, and I doubt that they ever experience shame. They may remember feeling it, just as you do, but their training has “rewired” the hardwiring.

    That’s what I believe you have done—trained yourself, via “self-directed neuroplasticity,” in the same way an aikido student does. Whatever you want to call the alternative (and maybe we need a new word for it), the remarkable difference is that you figured it out for yourself. So, maybe you will be, regarding shame, what O Sensei was regarding the stress response.

    More power to you!

  15. PS: Schwartz teaches his OCD people that the patterns in their “before” fMRIs are the result of trauma and mis-learning. He also teaches them that the “true self” is not the same as the brain, and that, by identifying with the self, they can stop identifying with the OCD patterns–the slogan he teaches is, “It’s not me, it’s my brain.” For those of us who have been fighting biopsych, this may sound really harmful. But it isn’t: it empowers people to get involved in removing the effects of their own trauma.

    The brain model is only a problem when what is observed is labelled a disease process and there is no sense of a separate, more powerful self that can change the brain. As Schwartz uses it, it offers people, at least, an empowering metaphor.

  16. If more psychiatrists truly felt guilt and shame, perhaps there would be fewer of them. I think I would encourage getting out of psychiatry over getting over having a conscience. Unfortunately, as nothing is going to prevent people from demanding snake-oil salesmen, perhaps what we really need is more doctors to challenge the paradigm that is resulting in so much death and misfortune. Inequity, in one form or another, as I see it, is the thing behind all of this malcontent and self-loathing that bears a label, or incites “treatment”. When inequity doesn’t lead to further inequity, I guess there you could say there has been an improvement in the “patient/clients” condition.

  17. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for another thought provoking article. I find it interesting to consider your thoughts here, as someone who is a long time Vipassana (mindfulness) practitioner, and as somone who has spent quite a bit of time studying Buddhism and meditation in Asia, and as a therapist/psychologist who practices with a predominant frame of self acceptance and self compassion. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg tells a story of how when the Dalai Lama came to the West, he was really taken aback by the self-loathing and self-hatred he found here, saying that he simply hadn’t seen anything like it in his own (Tibetan) culture:

    http://www.onbeing.org/blog/sharon-salzberg-the-self-hatred-within-us/8097

    ..it really does seem like there is something within the Western culture that has spawned this kind of deep self-loathing that runs in start contast to the experience of “basic goodness” or “Buddha nature” (as held within the Buddhist tradition), and/or the rich interdependence and intrinsic “existential belonging” as embodied within most indigenous traditions and other Eastern traditions (e.g., Taoism, advaita vedanta, etc.). Following on your use of the term “remorse” as perhaps being a more noble emotion, I wonder if for those of us in the West, our particularly long history of exploiting, oppressing, enslaving, torturing, etc., other races and sentient beings has led to a kind of deep transmution of long-held intergenerational remorse into the deep self-loathing (showing up as profound shame and guilt, as you write about) that we struggle with today. Very interesting to thing about.

    I initially shared one (or more) of the other commenters’ concerns that you may be suggesting a kind of denial (by emphatically saying “No!” to our own emotions), which in turn may further entrench shame and guilt (i.e., “This critical part of myself is really bad, and I need to crush it”). But I think that I know you and your writing enough to recognize that this “No!” is probably more akin to the “No!” we might yell to a child who is about to grab a snake or run into a busy street–a firm but compassionate “No!”. So compassionately saying to this part of ourself that we’re not willing to allow further self-harm. Do I have the right? Is that the kind of attitude you’re suggesting be cultivated?

    Coming from a mindfulness stance (the way that I generally work), it would generally be suggested that such potentially destructive emotions be worked with by detaching from them and developing the capacity to witness/observe them with a kind of open compassionate curiosity, seeing them as simply a wave of thoughts/sensations/impulses moving through our experience , so not “buying the story” or acting them out on one hand, but also not actively trying to suppress them on the other hand: “between the extremes of expression and suppression is bare observation.” So by shifting our perspective to seeing these kinds of emotions as merely passing “waves” or “storms,” we are able to learn to eventually see the “background” beneath them, which entails a more expansive interconnected sense of self, and the natural qualities of love, compassion and joy that go along with this.: it’s kind of like one of those gestalt image figure/ground shifts. And as this shift begins to be made, with the powerful potentially destructive emotions being seen as simply transientn forms passing in front of a background of “basic goodness,” they naturally lose their power, and even better, often reveal information that can help us move towards a life that is hopefully more workable and enjoyable. Of course this is much easier said than done(!), but I’ve had a lot of success supporting many of my own clients using this kind of approach (many of whom have struggled with shame and guilt, which seem to be particularly powerful for those with early childhood trauma).

    I’d be curious to hear about how this approach I’m describing above may or may not line up with your own approach/philosophy.

    Warm regards,
    Paris

  18. We have discussed here people who are burdened with shame and guilt for crimes or sins they did not commit.Either they feel guilty for original sin, for sex, for drugs, for not living up to their parents’ expectations.Yes they should be relieved of their burden of guilt and self-hate.

    But no one has said that they have worked with cold blooded murderers(prisoners or soldiers) and it is therapeutic to relieve them of all sense of shame or guilt–but it is implied by omission.

    Again I assert that the first group is different from the second.

    Was Dostoyevsky wrong? What about–to take a few iconic mass murderers– Hitler, Eichmann,Dr Mengele, Stalin, Kissinger, Lt Calley. Cheney, Bush? Do we really think they can and should be redeemed without feeling any guilt or shame for their crimes, their sins?? Some would say some or all of the above can or should not be forgiven or redeemed–that they should not be allowed to rejoin the human community. I think they should–all.

    But I challenge anyone here who agrees, to affirm that they should be forgiven, or that they could be rehabilitated without having first felt a profound sense of guilt, of remorse, of shame for the crimes,the sins they perpetrated. And is this not also true for those who have deliberately murdered one innocent person? Is there another route to redemption–or rehabilitation–for people who have committed heinous crimes, grievous sins??.

    Seth
    http://www.sethHfarber.com

  19. Hi Michael

    I just got around to reading your great blog on shame and guilt.

    I believe you have correctly linked these destructive emotions and thoughts to the class nature of our capitalist system and the “dog eat dog” essence of a profit based system and the resulting “Social Darwinism.”

    What was left out and deserves more attention on the subject of “guilt and Shame” is the powerful role of organized religion and the pervasive concept of “original sin.” Millions of people have embodied, from early childhood, the view that they are born “sinners.” That somehow we all embody the influences of the”Devil” and must spend our entire lives trying to purge ourselves of “evil.”

    With these powerful religious influences, that even pervades even some of the less “condemning” type church philosophies, is it any wonder that people engage in such self loathing and self condemnation?

    To heal as a society we must cast away these religious delusions and vociferously declare that there is NO such thing as “sin.” We do not need religion or concepts of “sin” to be moral people. Human beings simply make human mistakes. We can all learn from those mistakes and, yes, genuine remorse can be an important part of that learning experience.

    Just some added food for thought in a vitally important topic. Michael, thanks for writing this blog.

    Respectfully, Richard