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.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.