guilt & shame: overview - Northlight Counseling

Guilt & Shame

Guilt and Shame are sometimes used to describe the same thing. But I believe that there are differences. Guilt results from a violation, transgression, the exercise of inappropriate power or a fault of doing something wrong. This can result in feelings of remorse, and dealing with guilt can be as simple as an apology. Overcoming shame, however, is much more challenging. Shame results from a feeling of falling short, and a self-image that lacks the exercise of power or control. Shame is a self-loathing feeling of inadequacy; a sense that “I am no good.” Either sex can experience shame, though women seem to experience it more frequently.

Eric Erikson created the stages of development, including initiative vs guilt, which children experience at approximately ages 3-6 years old. Preschoolers have great curiosity and explore through imaginative play, reenacting the different roles and activities of people. Guilt is developed by learning right from wrong, guided by parents and teachers. If the adults’ expectations are unrealistic or punish the child too severely for his mistakes, then he may develop a form of toxic guilt and shame.

Effects of Guilt and Shame

Guilt can be described as a feeling of remorse over something done. Perhaps someone has had, or contributed to, an abortion. Toxic guilt would drive a person to do something drastic, like seek consolation from drugs or alcohol, in an attempt to drown out the pain of remorse.

Survivor guilt is a normal feeling for many who have survived a traumatic event. A person who survives a tragedy may question why he or she was allowed to endure, while others suffered, especially when the event seemed to have nothing to do than mere luck or coincidence.

Shame is a feeling of inadequacy, a sense of self-loathing, with very low self-esteem. Perhaps one’s family of origin was not as nurturing as needed. Perhaps one is feeling so shame-filled that it feels nearly impossible to let go of a relationship, even though it is harmful. One feels that this harm is “normal,” because it imitates how one perceives his or her own family from childhood.

How to Deal with and Overcome Guilt and Shame

Overcoming shame is the psychology of self-esteem. Shame is a self-perception of value, based on failures that come from being human. Treating shame includes challenging one’s thoughts about oneself, gaining perspective on one’s actions, and re-evaluating one’s decision-making process. Through counseling, you can overcome shame.

Overcoming guilt is the psychology of forgiveness. How to let go of a relationship that failed, or how to let go of the past decisions and actions of others or oneself is the task at hand. Through counseling, you can overcome guilt.

Overcoming survivor guilt is the psychology of control. Recognizing how much or how little control one has over a tragic event aids in understanding how to cope. It is not helpful to ask, “What if…” when reflecting upon the event. One can only choose what is best for oneself, in that moment, with all available resources. Finding ways to keep alive the memory of those who died can aid in memorializing the people who were lost. If you find that you need more counseling, contact me for an appointment.

guilt/shame resources