Do Guilt and Shame Follow You Everywhere? Take These Steps to Let Them Go
When you feel you’ve done something wrong, it can leave you with feelings of guilt.
This is perfectly normal. The problem occurs when you are far past the point where you should have forgiven yourself, and let these feelings go, yet you find yourself still holding on to them. This can be a sign that what you’re really struggling with is shame. Letting go of guilt and shame can be challenging, but it’s possible!
Defining Guilt and Shame
Distinguishing between guilt and shame is the first step in addressing these feelings.
Guilt is a feeling you have when you realize that you have violated a value system of moral conduct. With feelings of guilt, you are focused on a particular behavior. Perhaps you didn’t hold the door open for an elderly woman behind you and it shut quickly on her. You feel guilty because this is not consistent with your value system. You want to be kind and respectful to others, but got in a hurry and missed the opportunity.
Brene Brown defines shame as, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Shame is the feeling that I am bad and therefore undeserving, unlovable, or unworthy.
The language of shame can sound like: I’m unworthy, I’m not good enough, I’m inadequate, I’m broken, I’m wrong, I’m unlovable, I don’t belong, others don’t like me, other’s see my flaws.
Guilt is a feeling that lets you know you didn’t live up to the values you have for yourself. This can be useful in that it prompts you to correct that situation. Shame on the other hand leads to isolation and disconnection. We’ll start with identifying ways to let go of guilt.
Steps to Letting Go of Guilt
Take ownership for your part in the situation.
The first and most important step you can take is to face the situation directly. Trying to avoid facing the subject can send you into a vicious cycle of guilt and shame, making the situation even worse. Take ownership for YOUR part in the situation. Perhaps you forgot something or let someone down. These things happen, it’s ok to acknowledge that you’re not perfect.
Manage your expectations of yourself.
The next thing to do is to check out whether your expectations are realistic or unrealistic. Maybe you “messed up” and didn’t cook a homemade dinner for your neighbor while she was sick because you were so exhausted from working and caring for two children. You may feel guilty because you’d like to like to show your care and support.
However, if you begin to make it mean something about you, you’re heading for shame (see section below). Ask yourself, is it absolutely a true fact that I did something wrong that I should be guilty about? Or is this a case of not meeting your own expectations? If it’s the latter situation, let yourself off the hook. Your worth does not come from what you do or don’t do.
Are you taking responsibility for others’ feelings?
Sometimes we can feel guilty when others are unhappy with our decisions, choices or behaviors. It can be uncomfortable and lead to feelings of guilt. “I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings!” Feelings of guilt may be protecting you from feeling that you’ve disappointed or upset someone else. Remember, we all have negative feelings from time to time, but we can move past it. You don’t need to protect others from having negative feelings, or question yourself if others aren’t happy with you.
If you recognized that you did do something that could have been done differently, correct the situation as soon as you can. Apologize for what you’ve said or forgot to do; whatever you did, try your best to undo it. If the opportunity has simply passed, make a resolve to be more mindful in the future.
If you are given the chance to apologize, make sure to be open to listening as much, if not more, than talking. This isn’t only meant to be therapeutic for you; it is also meant to help others with their own issues regarding the situation. If they wish to verbalize their issues with the matter, let them. It probably won’t feel good at the time, but it’s something that can help you have a clearer and healthier mind afterward.
After the apology, ask if there is anything that you can do for them. With the obvious and extreme exceptions, be prepared to follow through with whatever request they have.
The last step is to forgive yourself. You’ve acknowledged that what you did wasn’t consistent with the person you’d like to be, you’ve done your best to undo your wrong or set an intention for the future, and you’ve apologized to those whom you’ve hurt. Now it’s time to forgive yourself. What if you need a little more help before you can do so?
One thing that you can try is writing down whatever you feel is relevant, regarding the situation. What did you do (or neglect to do)? Who did you hurt? Did you realize they would be hurt by your action? What was your motivation? How do you feel about it now? What obstacles (fears, shame) get in your way? Everything that you can think of, write it down.
The other thing you can try is talking to someone about the situation, a person you trust, but isn’t directly involved in the situation. If you don’t think you can open up to a close friend or family member, try talking to a therapist about it. Whoever you talk to, the idea is to try and lessen the amount of emotion that you’ve attached to the issue, so that you can let it go. The more we keep it to ourselves, the more attached we become to it. You may have difficulty letting go of guilt because you’re actually dealing with shame, not guilt.
Make Sure You’re Not Just Beating Yourself Up
You may find yourself holding onto guilt and shame when you haven’t actually done something wrong, but are fearful that you have. This is most likely related to core feelings of shame. That is, deep seated fears that you are a bad person or fears of rejection, for example. These core fears can stem more from past experiences or trauma, particularly interpersonal trauma, than the situation at hand. If you’re struggling with shame, try these strategies:
Identify the way in which you have INTERPRETED the situation.
Often, it’s not the situation itself that leads to shame, it’s our interpretation of the situation. What are the facts, the objective data you have about the situation? Perhaps you were passed over for an opportunity and given one or two reasons. By themselves, the reasons may be factual. However, when you add an interpretation that you’re not good enough to the reasons, you are going down the path of shame. When you start to have these thoughts, stop and check in with yourself. What are the facts – the data that 10 other people would agree is absolutely true? What interpretation have I added to the facts? Work on letting go of the interpretation and sticking with the facts.
Identify the emotions you are uncomfortable acknowledging.
Sometimes the facts of a situation make us uncomfortable. Perhaps you’ve disappointed someone else. Perhaps someone is angry with you. It can be easy to jump into shame if that is a familiar pattern. Shame can be a way to try and “protect” yourself from making this mistake in the future and preventing the experience of uncomfortable emotions. What ends up happening, however, is that you’re avoiding the initial uncomfortable feeling by beating yourself up and believing hurtful things about yourself. It doesn’t help in the long run. Sometimes, it’s better just to sit with the discomfort of someone being upset or disappointed with you.
Challenge the validity of negative judgments about yourself (or others).
Our standards, values and expectations can be associated with our beliefs. For example, being thoughtful of a sick neighbor can be associated with a belief that “good people are thoughtful and considerate” and others are “selfish.” If your belief goes one step further, “selfish people aren’t worthy of connection,” it can create more pain.
The next time you feel guilt or shame about something, identify the beliefs around the situation. For example, “only stupid, weak or inadequate people make mistakes, you can’t make mistakes to be successful,” “I shouldn’t make mistakes,” “I should be perfect,” “I should always be a supportive friend.” Imagine what would happen then if you made a mistake – it can quickly lead to feelings of shame and hiding. What does it really mean to make a mistake? Perhaps you were tired and lacked clear judgment. Identify your unspoken beliefs and challenge them. Watch out for rigid, black and white thinking.
Look to change your beliefs into thoughts that are more compassionate and reasonable to the situation. You might think for example, “I wish I didn’t make that mistake, but I’m human and it doesn’t make me a bad person.”
Increase Self-Compassion and Acceptance
Ultimately, you will make mistakes, disappoint yourself or others, and regret a decision you’ve made. You’re not perfect! To cope with these difficult feelings, it’s important to take a compassionate and accepting approach towards yourself. Moving forward with compassion can also help you face the situation itself. Often, these are the moments we can learn and grow from, allowing us the opportunity to do things differently in the future. Acknowledge your feelings and experiences, show yourself some compassion for being human, and let shame go. There’s no need to hold onto it and punish yourself.
Coping with Feelings of Shame
It can take time just to recognize when you are in the grip of shame and guilt, much less how to let it go. Coping with shame may involve healing from previous trauma or learning to value your unique worth and challenge your beliefs. A therapist can help you let go of guilt and shame, which can have a powerful impact in all areas of your life. Contact us in Houston to find out how we can help.
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