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Guilt Versus Shame

Photo by Hester Ras on Unsplash

Last week I discussed why some of us work too hard to help others, especially those that we love and care for the most.  One driving force that I neglected to mention is guilt.  We might feel guilty because of a divorce, an uninvolved spouse or ex-spouse, physical, emotional or financial hardship or some other trauma that our loved one had to endure.  We can very easily justify our care-taking behaviors based on their need and our love, but as you read last week it isn’t always helpful and may hinder the other person’s emotional growth.

An interesting study by Martin Day and Ramona Bobocel found that guilt actually produced greater sensations of  physical weight, reinforcing the metaphor, “weighed down by guilt.” Alternately, a study by Francis Flynn found that people who are prone to guilt work harder and perform better. Some distinguish between healthy guilt and toxic guilt, while others believe that unhealthy guilt is really shame.  Although guilt can be a good thing and occasionally provides the catalyst for change, self-respect and love produce lasting change in behaviors.

Author and clinical educator Dr. Brene Brown believes that guilt is healthy and shame is toxic.  Healthy guilt can serve a purpose in regulating our moral compass and can lead to positive behavior change.  On the other hand, shame causes low self-esteem and behaviors that reinforce a negative self-image.  Whereas guilt results from bad behaviors, shame comes from the belief that you’re a bad person.  Shame does not motivate behavioral change, but instead many shame-oriented people don’t believe they are capable of change.  So what can we do to manage unhealthy guilt or shame?

Identify the feelings, share it with others, let it go, and seek empathy from supportive loved ones.  Dr. Brown found that not discussing a shaming event can actually be more damaging than the actual event.  Sharing what’s going on in our minds produces therapeutic effects in the brain.  Reframing our thoughts shifts our focus from our character to our behavior.  Being kinder and gentler to ourselves with self-affirming statements will help.  Writing out our thoughts and feelings can be another valuable exercise in an effort to heal the shame.  Helping others and volunteering can also produce positive benefits.  Take action today to heal from your emotional pain.

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