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. When you find it difficult letting go of guilt, you could be dealing with something else. 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 before learning how to overcome guilt and shame.
Guilt is a feeling you have when you realize that you have violated a value system of moral conduct. Guilt is, “I did something wrong,” and it’s actually a useful emotion that motivates us to change.
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 bad or 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.
Feelings of guilt can be useful in that guilt prompts you to correct that situation.
Embarrassment is typically more fleeting than shame. We know that similar things happen to other people and that the feeling will go away. Humiliation is often inflicted by others. People don’t feel they deserve their humiliation. They feel that they deserve their shame.
Shame is something all of us feel at different points. It is a belief that we are inherently bad and the feeling there is something fundamentally wrong with us. Shame leads to isolation and disconnection. It makes us feel unworthy of being connected with our fellow humans.
Our body and our brain process shame the same ways they process physical danger, with impulses to fight, flee or freeze. It is an intensely painful feeling that is often associated with addiction, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. 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, others see my flaws.
Brené Brown on Shame vs Guilt
Recognizing Shame: Words People Use When Experiencing Shame
- I keep getting embarrassed when I speak in class
- I keep getting put down and yelled at by my husband when I tell my kids to behave
- Everything is wrong with me
- I feel like this pit in my stomach drags me down and my throat closes up
- Nothing is wrong with me
- I can’t think clearly, my brain is frozen up
- I feel stupid, I feel stuck
Recognizing Shame: Shame Based Negative Self-Talk
- I can’t support my family
- I’m a failure at work/in my marriage/in bed/with money.
- I did that wrong.
- I am wrong/defective.
- I’m not attractive.
- I should look pretty and put together all the time.
- I’m a bad parent/spouse.
- I never do enough for my family/at work/in bed.
- I should be able to do it all effortlessly.
Shame Triggers for Men & Women
Men vs. Women
Men have one main shame trigger: being perceived as weak. This can be in terms of physical strength, financial clout, and emotional stoicism. Men tend to equate weakness with failure.
Women’s shame generally centers on appearance and the need to be perceived as perfect. What’s more, women feel pressure to achieve beauty and perfection without appearing to put in any effort. If someone sees them sweat, it doesn’t count.
Steps to Letting Go of Guilt and Shame
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.
Letting Go of Shame
Ground your body physically in your feet and legs and expand your breathing.
Try these grounding exercises, focusing on the ones that emphasize legs and feet.
Slow things down.
Begin to recognize when you are experiencing shame vs rushing through it. Once you begin to recognize it, you begin to let it go. We can’t let go of what we don’t know is there.
3. Move back into positive or neutral sensations.
When you touch upon shame or vulnerable feelings, follow step 1 and take a moment to acknowledge those feelings. Then step back out into a positive or neutral experience and take some time to linger on those emotions.
You might notice where in your body you are feeling neutral, even it’s just a tiny spot such as your fingernail or the tip of your finger. Take some time to focus on that spot and notice what it feels like.
4. Move back and forth between the vulnerable feelings and the neutral ones.
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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
Ask yourself, would you tell your best friend that he or she is flawed? Would you tell the happy, three-year-old girl you just saw at the grocery store? Hopefully your answer is no, of course not. Of course they’re not deeply flawed. Remember, that you are that friend and you were once that child. Tell yourself that you are not flawed. You are inherently worthy.
Developing Shame Resilience
It isn’t possible to develop shame-resistance, but it is possible to develop shame-resilience, which allows us to recover ourselves when we experience shame. Shame resilience is developed by practicing a set of skills:
1. Recognizing our physical symptoms of shame and our shame triggers.
2. Practicing critical awareness of the forces that drive shame, and our reaction to them. Often these are messages that come from our culture about who we should and shouldn’t be.
3. Reaching out to others who have earned the right to hear our shame stories.
4. Speaking shame. I call this naming the demon. It means that instead of shutting down or acting out, we express how we feel and ask for what we need.
Developing shame resilience empowers us, and gives us a new sense of freedom. Instead of hiding out and avoiding life experiences that risk shame, we discover that we won’t die from trying and failing. This can be in any arena of life from career to relationships. Shame resilience also frees up our capabilities, since we learn to recover ourselves and move forward more quickly to re-engage is life after we have been derailed by shame. It also provides a foundation for improving our mental health.
Letting Go of Guilt and Shame
Do you struggle with feeling unworthy or inadequate? In what ways are you playing small in your life? Holding yourself back, or feeling inadequate. Marianne Williamson says:
“Our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?”
Actually, who are you not to be?
…Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
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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