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Dynamics of Guilt & Shame
Saturday, June 25, 2022 by Dan R. Graham LPC-S

If you ever meet a person who claims they have never experienced guilt or shame – move away quickly! They are either a psychopath or someone who has an extreme lack of self-awareness. The fact is, we have all experienced some level of guilt and shame. It comes with human nature – in part, from both our cognitive and spiritual aspects of our being. The following blog is not intended to be an exhaustive explanation of the subject, but a helpful snapshot of certain realities concerning the role of guilt and shame in our lives, and how we can approach it.

Let’s start with GUILT. People often confuse guilt with shame or use the words interchangeably. While we may experience both, there is a difference between them.

There are two general types of guilt. First, legitimate guilt is the uncomfortable or painful feeling that results from doing something that violates a personal moral standard or value. Guilt normally concerns our behavior, feeling bad about what we have done, or perhaps what we didn’t do that we should have done. Genuine guilt results from a moral failure of some sort; for example, when we have wronged someone. We can also feel guilty when considering an action that is wrong even though the action has not yet been committed. If a person has a lustful thought toward someone knowing those thoughts are not righteous, he/she may feel genuine guilt and thus prevent the person from acting upon those thoughts.

As one can see, guilt can be a useful emotion to help guide us in our relationships with God, ourselves and with others. Guilt, through our God created conscience, informs us that we did ‘something’ wrong or are about to. When we recognize the message of genuine guilt and take positive action to avoid or stop sinful behaviors, guilt is a good thing – it is a ‘healthy guilt’. We use this kind of guilt to live peaceably in society, to identify and resolve our moral conflicts, to correct our poor moral choices, and in doing so, improve our relationships. If genuine guilt is ignored our hearts become hardened to the point where we have a deactivated conscience; our behaviors become consistently selfish, unhealthy and eventually destructive.

Genuine guilt can be relieved substantially be recognizing its presence and working through it. This means that we experience it, and perhaps discuss it with a trusted friend or therapist. The simplest resolution is to confess our moral failure to God and those we hurt (in that order). Then, ask for forgiveness. Next, repentance is in order. In other words, commit to abstaining from the wrongful behavior; do what is right and moral. If the guilt seems more complex or persistent, we may need the assistance a pastor or other godly person; small therapy groups or individual counseling may be beneficial.

One last word concerning genuine guilt: it comes from the conscience that a loving God has created within us. If we attempt to mitigate genuine guilt without his involvement through the person of Jesus Christ, we will fail. Since God (and not the individual) is the arbiter of morality, then is stands to reason that God must be involved in removing the guilt we feel.

The second type of guilt is ‘false guilt’, which is always unhealthy. It is detrimental to our serenity, and our functioning. It effects our mental, emotional and spiritual growth and wellbeing. False guilt is not a function of our conscience but instead a result of faulty thinking. For example, when a person says ‘yes’ to a request they actually want to decline, but they say yes anyway to avoid feeling guilty – that is false guilt. Normally, there is no moral wrong in saying no, but we feel guilty for doing so. We sometimes ‘feel bad’ when we say ‘no’ to someone’s request because we empathize with them and want the best for them; that can translate into false guilt, especially if the person attempts to put us on a ‘guilt trip!’ When ‘feeling bad’ turns into lingering remorse – that is unhealthy false guilt. If we regularly acquiesce to the requests to avoid ‘guilty’ feelings, we quickly become controlled by others. That breeds resentment for oneself and for the other person. People from troubled or dysfunctional environments often have a mixture of genuine and false guilt. False guilt, when not dealt with, lingers on; occasionally becoming psychologically and emotionally disabling. False guilt can come from various situations and people. The rule of thumb is simple: genuine guilt is the result of perceived or acknowledged moral failure. If there is no moral failure, then there is no genuine guilt. If we feel guilty about a non-moral issue, then it is false guilt. We rid ourselves of false guilt by choosing to dismiss the feelings as invalid and focusing on the truth - declining a request is not normally a moral issue.  

SHAME is different from guilt but can be connected.  Shame typically comes from two primary sources. First, from habitual negative things we have done. For example, if a person regularly steals he becomes known as a thief. The word ‘steals’ is a verb; it is something people do. The word ‘thief’ is a noun: a person, place or thing. We become known by what we do. If we do immoral things we become known and identified by the immoral act – in this case, the person who steals becomes identified as a thief. Since stealing is a morally shameful act, the person who steals then becomes identified by that shameful act. If the thief agrees that he is genuinely guilty of shameful behavior, he will then assume the identity of shame that correlates to being a thief. As one can see, there is a connection regarding genuine guilt and shame. They tend to go hand in hand.  To rid oneself of this type of guilt and shame, confession of wrongful behaviors is necessary, followed by repentance.

Shame that is not connected to guilt is the uncomfortable or painful feelings that we experience when we come to believe that we are defective, bad, incomplete, rotten, useless, inadequate, and or a failure. Guilt is a negative feeling we experience when we do something wrong.  Shame on the other hand is what we feel when we perceive to be something wrong. It is a perceived negative self-identity – it is what or who we believe ourselves to be. Though that perception is typically inaccurate, people seem to get stuck in the mindset of shame.

Secondly, research tells us that most people experience shame – that feeling we get when we don’t think we measure up. Shame is universal. None of us measure up to the countless standards of perfection that exist! When we don’t measure up to a standard that is important to us we feel defective or inadequate; we feel shame. We attempt to hide our feelings of shame but we usually believe that others can see through us anyway, through our façade and into our defectiveness. Shame leads to hopelessness, that no matter what we do, we cannot measure up.  We tend to isolate ourselves and become lonely. We feel alone with our shame, cut off from others. What is worse is that we may say to ourselves, “I’m afraid to tell anyone about my shame because if I do, they’ll think I’m bad, and I can’t stand hearing how bad I am. I’m going keep this feeling to myself; I’ll block it out or pretend it’s not there.”

“I may even consciously or unconsciously disguise my shame as if it were some other feeling or action and then project that onto other people. Some of the feelings and actions that may mask our shame include: anger, contempt, neglect or withdrawal, resentment, attack, abandonment, rage, control, disappointment, blame, perfectionism, and compulsive behaviors.

‘And when I feel or act out any of these disguises, it serves a useful purpose of protecting my ego or pride – it may help me to save face. These behaviors act as a defense against my feeling the shame. But even though I may skillfully defend myself against my shame, it can still be seen by others when I hang my head, slump down, avoid eye contact or apologize for having needs and rights. I may even feel somewhat nauseated, cold, withdrawn and alienated’ (Fischer, 1985). No matter how well we may defend ourselves against it, shame does not ‘just go away’. It becomes our identity. We must learn what it is and what to do with it.

The third major source of shame to comes from the negative messages, affirmations, beliefs, and rules that we heard growing up. We hear these from our parents, parent figures, or other people in authority, such as teachers and coaches. Even friends may put us down and provoke feelings of inadequacy. These messages basically tell us that we are somehow defective or unworthy - that we are not acceptable. But the fact is, we are all worthy. God created us to be worthy. We need to consider the following questions: what do I believe about myself? Do I believe and therefore live out the negative messages that I am unworthy or shameful? Or do I believe that I am worthy because I was created by God in his image and likeness, and for a purpose that only I can fulfill?  Do I believe that God paid the ultimate price of Jesus Christ so that I would have an opportunity of eternal fellowship with Him? What God paid is indicative of our inherent value as human beings. This truth is the answer to shame. It can be our identity.

You have control over what you believe and what you think about. You do not have to feel shame. It is your choice. Choose truth. You are worthy.

If you have difficulty choosing worthiness and sticking to your choice, contact a trusted counselor. They are trained to assist you in your journey.

Homestead Hope Counseling – Offering help for today and hope for tomorrow.

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