Understanding the Burden of Shame and Guilt
Shame and guilt are complex and often deeply ingrained emotions that can significantly impact our mental health and wellbeing. As a counsellor or psychotherapist at Misma Counselling Service, I believe it’s crucial to understand these emotions and explore how they can affect our lives. I think - for me, that the dynamics of shame and guilt is perhaps one of my reasons that lead me to want to study the mind, as I wished to understand the ability to undermine our pursuit of a good enough life.
Shame: The Feeling of Inadequacy
Shame is a powerful and painful emotion characterised by a profound sense of inadequacy, unworthiness, and self-loathing. It often arises from a belief that we are fundamentally damaged or morally wrong in some ways. Unlike guilt, which tends to focus on specific actions or behaviours, shame goes much deeper, attacking our very sense of self.
Shame can manifest in various ways, from social withdrawal and self-isolation to self-destructive behaviours like substances abuse, addictions or eating disorders. It can be especially challenging to cope with shame because it tends to be hidden in the shadows of our subconscious, influencing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours without us even realising it. As a therapist, I see how hard it is when patients realise such destructiveness expressed in shame which can take different shapes and forms. This painful realisation is often accompanied by confusion, hopelessness, and sometimes even more destructive resentment.
Guilt: The Weight of Responsibility
Guilt, on the other hand, is related to a specific action or behaviour that we perceive as wrong or hurtful. While guilt can serve as a healthy moral compass, prompting us to take responsibility for our action and make amends, it can also become overwhelming and harmful to our wellbeing.
Excessive guilt can lead to rumination, where we replay past mistake in our minds, creating a never-ending cycle of self-blame. This can be particularly complicated and difficult, affecting our self-esteem and causing anxiety and depression.
But why do we have these feelings? Why is that from time to time we feel overwhelmed and down, then we choose what’s bad for us, things will mess up aspect of our lives that we so much want to grow and develop? Why do we find ourselves tangled with unhealthy and destructive cycles, be them in behaviours or feelings? It’s just doesn’t make sense to pursue something that lead to suffering. Why so?
The Interplay Between Shame and Guilt
Shame and guilt are interconnected emotions that can reinforce each other. For instance, experiencing guilt for a perceived wrongdoing or fault can trigger feelings of shame if we internalise that wrongdoing as a reflection of our worthiness. On the other hand, unresolved shame from the past can make us more susceptible to feeling guilty, even for minor transgressions.
One important thing to recognise is the inner conflict, a struggle between the desire for feel valued and the fear of making mistakes. This conflict is met with counterproductive self-criticism. It’s akin to an internal version of Newton’s law, where every action is met with an opposing force, each driven by its own instinctual energy. While occasional self-doubt and mistakes are normal, if these feelings persist, they can impede our personal grow and wellbeing.
Freud can help us understand this conflict, a bit more. Freud suggested that real guilt comes from our hidden intentions. Doing something wrong isn’t what makes us feel guilty; it’s the awareness of our wrongful intentions. Legal guilt is about breaking the rules, while moral guilt is about our personal sense of right and wrong.
In his early theories, Freud talked about the “id”, which is the like part of us that interacts with the world around us. The “ego” then changes the environment so we can make the most of what it offers to satisfy our desires or needs. Later on, Freud (in 1923) introduced the word “superego” to describe the part of our mind that the ego adopts to help control the id. Freud studied the mind and how people behave, but there’s an underlying belief that human behaviour can be understood like the laws of physics, which predictable patterns.
In simple term, feeling guilty is like feeling anxious, especially when we’re torn between love and hate. It’s easy to see how guilt is connected to the inner struggle of loving and hating someone at the same time. Freud went even deeper to explain that these feelings are linked to our basic instincts.
In my therapy sessions, I often encounter various ways in which shame and guilt can affect people. These feelings are usual unconscious, and a big part of therapy process is helping patients to recognise and work through with the anxiety they bring.
I can give some simple examples of such unconscious meaning behind shame and guilt and what they do:
Neurotic: Some individuals, for some reasons, view a parent o a loved one as someone who has not succeeded in life, perhaps as someone weak or powerless. Unconsciously, they may form a kind of unhealthy attachment to this struggling parent. This can lead to feelings of shame and a determination never to surpass them. The idea of growing, improving and becoming better is then seen as something shameful, with a looming sense of guilt and punishment as a consequence. Achieving wellness is met with an internal judgement, enforced by a harsh and unkind part of the mind. Furthermore, some people believe that if they were to let go of this struggling figure they identify with, and try to create a separate, improved life, they would be contributing to their demise. For instance, they may worry the loved one might harm themselves, perhaps through excessive drinking. So, a life dominated by feelings shame and guilt unfolds, in all an attempt to avoid the greater destruction they fear would happen if they were to break this unhealthy attachment.
Punishment: Punishment through shame and guilt can be a way of penalising oneself. But what’s the crime? It’s for having desires, feelings, thoughts, or fantasies that are considered forbidden, and often harmful – thus to be pushed away from the unconsciousness. This helps the person avoid confronting certain destructive aspects of themselves, which may be directed towards loved ones. Inside us all, there exists a part that acts as our own internal judge, making us feel guilty if we go against our own set of rules. Freud termed this the “superego”, an internalised version of our parents that monitors and can punish us if we step out of line. Consequently, guilt arises from a demanding superego, penalising the person for what it believes is an internal transgression, which may not always align with external moral or legal standards.
Omnipotent: Some individuals may undermine their own progress as a defence against the unconscious fear of reaching great heights and attaining immense power, which in their imagination could unleash potential harmful aspects of themselves (like intense envy and greed). Consequently, some choose to stay in a state of powerless and weakness out of concern for potentially harming their loved ones. This sense of guilt acts like an internal safety mechanism, functioning as a form of self-protection.
Masochism: Masochism refers to finding a kind of weird satisfaction in feeling pain. So, in this case, shame and guilt can lead to a strange pleasure from hurting oneself or going through situation that cause pain and suffering.
Based on what I’ve seen in my therapy sessions and learned from my studies, it’s clear that shame and guilt can be harmful and also serve as a way to protect oneself. However, unless a person recognises the consequences of their self-undermining patterns and actively seeks to change them, it’s likely that shame and guilt will persist in their life.
Through psychotherapy, individuals have the opportunity to confront and understand the more harmful aspects of themselves. This process allows for these destructive feelings to be experienced, managed, and ultimately transformed within the therapeutic relationship. Patterns of shame and guilt are examined within the therapy setting, providing a change to unravel, process, and restructure them in the way the patient relates, behaves, and feels. Psychotherapy can also help find a balance between feelings of love and hate, lessening the destructive urges as they emerge in the therapeutic process.