Hollyhock walking path

Embracing guilt and shame

posted in: Emotions | 17

Befriending all of your emotions!

In my post on befriending your anger, I re-framed anger as a necessary emotion that supports you in developing and maintaining your healthy self image. This week, let’s look at the emotion that I call anger’s friend or partner: shame.

I envision healthy anger as the sentry that calmly walks the perimeter of your self-image and watches out for any challenges to your standpoint or your sense of self. I envision shame as a related sentry emotion that turns inward and watches you and your behaviors so that you don’t unnecessarily challenge, offend against, or wound others. When it’s working well, your healthy shame helps you become a stand-up person who follows an inner code of ethics and honor — in regard to other people, certainly, but also in regard to yourself. And thankfully, when you and your shame are working well together, it won’t torment you; it will support you.

As I developed my empathic theory of emotions, I continually tripped over competing definitions of guilt and shame, and it seemed that everywhere I looked, people were defining these two words differently — and sometimes in ways that directly contradicted each other. I got really fed up, so I went to a dictionary to see what was up. Let’s clear up this confusion before we delve more deeply into this exquisite and necessary emotion. This piece is an excerpt from my book The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You.

The Difference between Guilt and Shame

Book cover of The Language of EmotionsIn my early teens, I read a popular self-help book that branded guilt and shame as “useless” emotions. The book presented the idea that we’re all perfect, and therefore shouldn’t ever be guilt-ridden or ashamed of anything we do. That idea seemed very strange to me, so I went to the dictionary and looked up guiltless and shameless and found that neither state was anything to celebrate.

To be guiltless means to be free of mark or experience, as if you’re a blank slate. It’s not a sign of intelligence or growth, because guiltlessness exists only in people who have not yet lived.

To be shameless means to be senseless, uncouth, and impudent. It’s a very marked state of being out of control, out of touch, and exceedingly self-absorbed; therefore, shamelessness lives only in people who don’t have any relational skills. Both states – guiltlessness and shamelessness – helped me understand the intrinsic value of guilt and shame.

Fascinatingly, in a dictionary definition, guilt isn’t even an emotional state at all – it’s simply the knowledge and acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Guilt is a state of circumstance: you’re either guilty or not guilty in relation to the legal or moral code you value.

You cannot feel guilty, because guilt is a concrete state – not an emotional one! Your feelings are irrelevant; if you did something wrong, you’re guilty, and it doesn’t matter if you’re happy, angry, fearful, or depressed about it. When you don’t do something wrong, you’re not guilty. Feelings don’t enter into the equation at all. The only way you could possibly ever feel guilty is if you don’t quite remember committing an offense (“I feel like I might be guilty, but I’m not sure.”). No, what you feel is shame.

Guilt is a factual state; shame is an emotion.

Shame is the natural emotional consequence of guilt and wrongdoing. When your healthy shame is welcome in your psyche, its powerful heat and intensity will restore your boundaries when you’ve broken them yourself. However, most of us don’t welcome shame into our lives; we obscure it by saying “I feel guilty” instead of “I feel ashamed,” which speaks volumes about our current inability to identify and acknowledge our guilt, channel our appropriate shame, and make amends.

This is the real shame, because when we don’t welcome and honor our free-flowing and appropriate shame, we cannot moderate our own behavior. We’ll continually do things we know are wrong – and we won’t have the strength to stop ourselves. In our never-ending shamelessness, we’ll offend and offend and offend without pause – we’ll always be guilty – because nothing will wake us to our effect on the world.

If we continue to use the incorrect statement “I feel guilty,” we’ll be unable to right our wrongs, amend our behaviors, or discover where our shame originated – which means we’ll be unable to experience true happiness or contentment (both of which arise when we skillfully navigate through any difficult emotion). If we don’t come out and correctly state “I’m ashamed of myself,” we’ll never improve.

I’ll say it again before we go deeper: Guilt is a factual state, not an emotional one. You’re either guilty or not guilty. If you’re not guilty, then there’s nothing to be ashamed of. However, if you are guilty, and you want to know what to do about the fact of your guilt, then you’ve got to embrace the information shame brings to you. (From pages 198-200 in The Language of Emotions)

Embracing shame as your ally

Let’s look at the specific gifts and skills that shame brings to you.

SHAME: Restoring Integrity

GIFTS: Atonement ~ Integrity ~ Self-respect ~ Behavioral change

ACTION REQUIRED: Shame arises to help you moderate your behavior and make sure that you don’t hurt, embarrass, destabilize, or dehumanize yourself or others. Shame is a tricky emotion, because most of us learned about shame by being shamed. The healing practice for shame is to root out inauthentic and applied shame, and to encourage authentic, appropriate, and healthy shame (and remorse) in yourself and others.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: Who has been hurt? What must be made right?

Though many people suggest that shame is primarily unhealthy, it is in fact a crucial social emotion, and it’s directly connected to the empathic aspect of Concern for Others (see The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy). Healthy and authentic (to you) shame is the primary emotion that makes you honorable and capable of being a worthy relationship partner, colleague, and person.

Shame is certainly an emotion that can overwhelm you, but when you can get into a healthy empathic relationship to it, shame can be your best friend. Healthy and authentic shame can help you live up to your internal moral code so that you can take excellent care of yourself. Healthy shame can make you very sensitive socially, so that you’ll be able to stop yourself (gently and appropriately) before you say or do something wrong. Healthy and appropriate shame will also help you make amends if you realize that you’ve hurt someone, stuck your foot in your mouth, or broken a social rule.

The trick with shame is to name it as itself (it’s not guilt; it’s shame), welcome it in its authentic, internally-generated form, and reduce the amount of toxic, externally-enforced shame that clogs up your system. I created the five empathic skills to help with this task, and the skill called Burning Contracts (see Reworking a toxic emotion) is great for rooting out and removing toxic shame so that your healthy shame can have some peace and quiet — and get back to its regular work!

Identifying the Gifts of Shame

The statements below relate to the gifts of shame. How true are these statements for you?

  • I have a fairly easy time changing problem behaviors or old habits
  • When I make a social blunder, I have an easy time apologizing and correcting myself
  • I am able to ask for help and support from others
  • I can manage my intense emotions without attacking others
  • I live up to my promises (or I make new agreements if I can’t live up to them)

The Gifts of Shame. These statements may seem to relate to behavioral maturity (and they do), but they’re also the gifts of shame – which help you monitor and modify your behavior. Interestingly, when your shame is working gracefully, you won’t feel it as shame. Instead, you’ll just behave in a way that makes you feel comfortable and proud of yourself. For instance, you’ll floss because you like clean teeth (and not because you’ve been shamed into obsessive dental hygiene), you’ll avoid larceny and abusiveness because they don’t feel right (and not because you’ve been shamed or terrorized out of them), and you’ll manage your intense emotions skillfully because you respect the basic human rights of others.

Though many of us have a very troubling relationship with shame because it was applied to us as punishment when we were young, healthy and appropriate shame is absolutely crucial for all aspects of behavioral and social viability.

From the Shame chapter in The Language of Emotions

The Gifts of Shame: Restoring Integrity
Integrity ~ Atonement ~ Self-respect ~ The capacity to amend your behavior

Shame arises when your boundaries have been broken from the inside – by something you’ve done wrong, or have been convinced is wrong. While anger is the honorable sentry that faces outward and protects your boundaries from external damage, shame is the sentry that faces inward and protects your internal boundaries (and the boundaries of others) from your own incorrect or ill-conceived behaviors.

Shame is a vital and irreplaceable emotion that helps you mature into a conscious and well-regulated person. With shame’s assistance, you’ll be able to honorably monitor your emotions, your thoughts, your desires, and your behavior. However, if you don’t have conscious access to your own authentic shame, you won’t understand yourself, you’ll be haunted by improper behaviors and compulsions, you may explode with the toxic shame that torments you, and you’ll be unable to stand upright at the center of your life.

The questions for shame are: Who (or what) has been hurt? and What must be made right? These questions help you use shame honorably, and you won’t be painfully shame-filled or guilt-ridden; instead, you’ll have a compassionate sense of ethics, the courage to judge and supervise your own conduct, and the strength to amend your behaviors without inflating or deflating your ego unnecessarily. When you successfully navigate through your authentic shame, you’ll feel proud of yourself, and you’ll move naturally into happiness and contentment.

When shame arises in response to your own authentic and addressable flaws or missteps, it flows appropriately (and often a step or two in front of your behavior). If you welcome your appropriate shame, you’ll stop yourself before you do something injurious, before you say the wrong thing, or before you enter into unhealthy behaviors or relationships. We all need help figuring out our behaviors in the social world — and healthy shame is the precise emotion that offers this help.

Authentic and appropriate shame will help you turn away from your own maliciousness, charlatanism, and thievery – even when no one’s looking. It will keep you punctual, polite, and upstanding, and it will lead you gently but firmly away from the path of temptation. Authentic shame will stand at your inner boundary and monitor everything you do. With its honorable assistance, you’ll become a conscientious and well-moderated asset to yourself and our world. As a result, you’ll experience authentic self-respect – which will lead you time and time again to true contentment and happiness. Shame is your friend, so welcome it and learn to work with it.

Most of us were not taught to welcome or work with our authentic shame and remorse (which all of us feel naturally, especially when we’ve hurt someone); instead, most of us were taught about shame by being shamed. Authority figures such as parents, teachers, peers, and the media often attempt to teach and control us by applying shame from the outside, instead of trusting our natural ability to moderate our own behavior.

As a result, many of us can’t identify our own shame, which is actually sensible, momentary, and empowering: Your hand goes out for a cookie, you realize you don’t need it, and you walk away. That’s authentic, free-flowing shame working properly. Afterward, you feel strong and aware, and you simply live by a moral code. You floss because you like clean teeth, you avoid drugs, adultery, and crime because they’re uninteresting, and you treat people well because it feels right. That’s what your free-flowing shame feels like.

The first task in working with shame is to welcome it with open arms. When your shame arises in the presence of others (it usually appears first as an internal pull in the gut, a flush of heat, a momentary speechlessness, or a sense of internal caution), it’s important to listen to your shame. If your shame stops you before you say or do something shameful, you can thank it and make your necessary preemptive corrections.

If you don’t know why your shame has come forward, you can ask yourself or the people around you if you’ve done something incorrect (Who – or what – has been hurt?), and apologize or make amends if necessary (What must be made right?). If you can openly welcome your shame, it will recede naturally (and swiftly) once it has helped you make your correcting actions. Then, your contentment and happiness will arise naturally, and you’ll move forward as a smarter, stronger, and more honorable person. Go you!

Of course, your shame can be unrelated to the present, and unrelated to your current reality; it can come from the shaming messages you got from others. If so, your empathic mindfulness skills will help you shake off these messages so that you and your shame can live more comfortably and authentically in the present moment.

Yes, shame can be a toxic and incapacitating emotion. It’s a rapids-level emotion for many of us, but when an emotion is powerful, it doesn’t necessarily have to be dangerous. As natural empaths, we humans evolved to be able to deal with emotions and the social world. We just kind of forget that we did.

When you’re dealing with shame or any other supposedly toxic or “negative” emotion (see this post on valencing), remember that emotions and empathy are your first language. Yes, your emotions can speak to you in a way that sounds like gibberish, but they each have a very specific function and a vital set of gifts and skills for you. Welcome and befriend them all; your emotions are an intrinsic part of your intelligence, your empathic skills, your relationships skills, and your behavior. All emotions are necessary.

The genius in a life well lived

This is a poem I wrote for The Language of Emotions. As I look at it now, I realize that it is, in part, an ode to healthy shame.

Beyond sculptures and symphonies,

beyond great works and masterpieces

is the greater, finer art of creating a conscious life.

Genius appears everywhere,

but never so magnificently

as in a life well lived.

In the next post: The ingenious masking states of apathy and boredom

17 Responses

  1. Kaitlyn
    | Reply

    Brilliant! I really appreciate the definition of guilt and shame. So well put.

  2. Ini
    | Reply

    You’ve made it very clear Karla. For example, I still feel shame about something I did a long time ago, because I thought it was normal behaviour for a woman. But it was not an idea of my own. Thinking back I never felt guilt but always shame and some anger, also because of the reaction I got then. I should have protected pure self, staying by my own feelings. I see and understand that more clearly now than ever. Thank you again for getting me so alert about the nuance refining in this kind of feelings. I really love it, and it makes me to understand myself better than ever.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Ini! Our emotions can be such amazing guides, and I’ve found that they’ll continually remind me about what’s important, and how I want to behave in each moment. Thank you, emotions!

  3. Patricia
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, I have just read some new books concerning recent studies about shame, about the difficulties that arise when we are “Too ashamed” to live the vulnerability beneath it.While I find that it all was interesting, and rang extremely true for me, I could not help but be grateful that I had read your books first. It has been so helpful to “become friends” with shame, to appreciate it’s purpose and value, as opposed to seeing it as yet another bully I need to avoid, another part of me to hate on. The books I have read said that studies have found that there “is no such thing as good shame”. I can not accept that. I find that your description of shame/toxic shame gives a more workable way to know this very powerful emotion. I have spent a lifetime wondering about my emotions, having difficulties with regulation. It seems that your books, more than any other, have truly led me to a way, a real way, to relate to them, as opposed to fight them off. Ultimately, I have found that before all else, learning to see them as acceptable and valuable aspects of myself, has helped me to prepare for the next step, learning how to feel them, tolerate them, and to use the info they provide. ( while not abusing myself for having them!!!!) Again, and as always,. Thank you.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Patricia! Oof, shame research — I have to say that when shame and guilt are foreign and toxic, then yes, they’re terrible things to endure.

      But when they’re healthy, they’re wonderful, and they don’t feel like what we’ve come to know as shame at all. Antonio Damasio talks about the necessity of shame in moral development, and there’s research to suggest that the Concern for Others dimension of empathy is related to healthy shame (shamelessness is a sign/symptom of low empathy).

      I’m glad that you and your shame have become friends! It’s such a fabulous emotion when it’s healthy.

  4. Sheelkumar R Pal
    | Reply

    karla ,I am really very grateful to you , for all your efforts , in creating so much awareness about nuances of shame .
    How can it get any better than this . I wish you all success , and pray for all the blessings of life to flow to you , in all ways , always .

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you, Sheelkumar!

  5. MATTHEW SHERRILL
    | Reply

    Thank you for such clarifying inquiry.

    Would you comment on the topic of being shamed for being happy-creative-joyous in as much entirety as you see? Thanks in advance.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Matthew!

      I’d need to know the context. If the shamer is depressed or over-serious, it would be the shamer’s inability to manage that is at issue; though the constantly happy person may not have the skill to see that they’re being annoying or out of place in the social context.

      There are a lot of research studies about the problems of a too-positive or too-optimistic outlook (lack of awareness of difficulties, lack of awareness of limits, lack of planning for the future, etc), so it could also be that the people shaming the joyous person have seen the results of this behavior before.

      And if the joy and creativity are a part of a predictable manic phase, the shamers may be trying to act in the place of the shame that the happy-slappy person is ignoring!

      Of course, there are other answers depending on other contexts. Thanks for the question!

  6. Kathryn Turner
    | Reply

    HI Karla,
    What if the action in question (whether or not I am guilty) is not black or white? My sister and I persuaded our 94-year-old mother that it was time to move out of her big home of 64+ years, to a lovely 2-bedroom apartment in a retirement home where she already had friends (none of us kids lives nearby). She acquiesced, I think partly, because everyone seemed to be giving her the same advice: move. I know she still misses her home and, for example, looking out her window to see birds at the bird feeder and people walking by. After a year and a half in her new apartment, she has lost the sight in her “good” eye to macular degeneration and also shown more signs of dementia. I still wonder and feel guilt over our decision: were we right in having her move? Would she now be happier if still in her house? At the time leading up to the move she was also expressing some depression and we felt she would be better off in a place where socializing was easier. But it’s unclear and feels like it may always feel this way. How to come to terms with a decision that cannot be undone? It is not a black or white scenario! Thank you for whatever clarity you can provide me.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kathryn,

      It’s okay to feel guilt and shame about a decision. The work here is to understand whether they are authentic to you, or if they come from the outside. At 94, any change will be difficult, but getting your mom to a supportive community was a really good decision. If your mom was uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean that the decision was wrong.

      Taking care of aging parents is a difficult transition for many families, no matter if the decisions are perfect or flawed. In a real sense, elders are stepping down from adulthood to a need for care, in much the same way they stepped up from a need for care to childhood, adolescence, and adulthood as they matured. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to care for our parents often have some difficult emotional work to do as we switch places with them.

      It sounds to me as if she is winding down physically and cognitively, which is a natural transition. Perhaps staying in her home would have been more comfortable for a while, but the depression and the need to get her into a more supervised and supportive community really took precedence.

      Something you may find supportive is to look at grief, because of the losses that are occurring as your mom ages. The lingering nature of the guilt and shame you talk about feel as if there is a deeper emotion underneath: https://karlamclaren.com/grief-the-deep-river-of-the-soul/

      In my neighborhood, there are a lot of older people who are staying in their homes far past the time when they need support, and we’re all watching out for them, but I am concerned a lot of the time. The community your mom is in is such a good idea, and it’s wonderful that you and your siblings were able to find her a place with friends. In a difficult time, with no children around to keep a close eye on her, this was a very supportive thing to do.

      Take care.

      • Kathryn Turner
        | Reply

        Thank you, Karla, for your response, which helps. And I know that I am grieving the loss of my mother as I knew her for most of my life, and feeling sadness that the end of her life (though a good long life) is harder than we’d all hoped for her. So many ways to leave this life! My dad died suddenly, seemingly in “the pink of health” at age 80, which was a shock, but at least we didn’t see him suffer.

  7. Loz
    | Reply

    I’m wondering what your thoughts are on big emotional/moral dilemmas – difficult subjects such as abortion or perhaps killing somebody in self- defence? I think most people feel a sense of shame at the thought of taking a life – even if you aren’t judged in legal terms and whether you felt you had no choice or not. With abortion for instance, if you feel shame there isn’t a whole lot you can do action wise, especially if you were taking precautions to begin with. Grief seems workable, anger even, anxiety too. But shame seems like a tough one to know what to do with in this instance.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Loz; good question.

      Both of these involve death and require grief, so probably a ritual is in order. The shame would probably stay around for a while, because a person doesn’t want to repeat these situations. If the shame became intense, it would be time for some sort of intervention, moral or psychological.

      It’s important to feel the shame in these situations (if it’s present — some people are able to integrate these experiences without a lot of struggle, especially if they have good social support). But if the shame becomes overwhelming, it’s also important to seek out intervention and support.

  8. LJ
    | Reply

    Karla, I think an emotion has manifested as a health issue for me. It’s a hormone issue that has an undetermined source (meaning Dr’s can’t really do anything), and while not life threatening, makes me feel ashamed/embarrassed, and I wonder if I’ve created it to protect myself from others and the world using my embarrassment as “castle walls.” It is a thick boundry which I isn’t serving me anymore and I want to give up my embarrassment for what I can’t control or even more enticing is healing altogether. Besides burning contracts with the shame I feel now about the condition, can you give any insight into how to analyze the health issue for what it was born from. In TLOE you write a lot about shame associated with actions, but this shame comes from something I can’t control (maybe there’s something telling in that sentence.)Thank you so much for all you’ve done for helping make emotions approachable and human; the world can use more people who understand them.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello LJ. I don’t connect emotions and illnesses, but I wonder about the external shame that is applied by the “perfect health” people?

      I don’t know about you, but I grew up in the alternative health community, and there’s a lot of extremely unrealistic ideas there about perfect health and why we get diseases (supposedly, because our emotions, ideas, thoughts, or connection to gods are funky). It seems like a hopeful ideology at first, but when real life and the fact of human bodies intrude, people can be plunged into deep shame and embarrassment over natural human ailments and disabilities. It’s rough.

      For me, I would focus on the emotion and ask the questions, and see where it goes. Remember that emotions come forward to help you, and to point out situations that are really not working. Separating the emotions from the health issues can be very helpful, because if you think an emotion is contributing to an illness, it can be hard to work with it.

      I wish you and your emotions well!

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