Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Overcoming Guilt and Shame

                                    OVERCOMING GUILT AND SHAME 

Let’s agree: we all want to live in peace, contentment, joy and happiness. Guilt and shame rob us of our happiness. There are actually two clusters of feelings, positive and negative, which have been researched and described by sources as disparate as quantum scientists and spiritualists. Positive feelings are experienced as high vibrational states which lead us to proactive and constructive behavior, while negative low vibrational feelings including guilt and shame lead to misery and heartbreak.  Mankind has experienced plagues of suffering caused by guilt and shame. Let’s agree that we want to shine our light on this problem and escape from the tethers of these distressing emotions.


By now you are probably saying, “Wait a minute, Dr. Phillips. Guilt and shame are healthy because they lead to good behavior. We need to punish wrongdoing so that people can learn to be good and moral.”  This theme has been indoctrinated into society for ages as a self evident truth. But is this actually true?  Looking back into history, we see that both man and animal have been drawn into the circle of guilt and punishment. Has this improved our lives? In ancient Rome a dog was crucified annually as a lesson to the species because of a dog which failed to bark to sound the alarm during an invasion by Gaul. In 1519 a population of field mice was tried in court for destroying crops and given 14 days to leave a farmer’s field before being killed. In the Middle Ages pigs were regularly arrested and convicted of various crimes.  You’re probably thinking this was ridiculous and we now know better. Let’s look at human guilt and shame in the same light. When we feel guilty do we actually learn productive prosocial and moral behavior? Or are we like the field mice, dogs and pigs continuing the condemned behavior? Guilt therapists describe the feeling of guilt as “bad” or “yucky.”  People feel criticized, unworthy, immoral, depressed and anxious. These negative feelings often lead to avoidance behavior such as overeating or drinking, oversleeping, in other words attempts to drive the bad feelings away. Shame is even more destructive, with people feeling powerless, embarrassed, humiliated, worthless and self-hatred. Children are shamed early in life and learn to judge themselves harshly as they are judged by others. While some people learn to stop their undesirable behavior due to guilt, others simply learn to conceal the misbehavior or develop anger and resentment due to being, as they say, “guilt tripped.”


Let’s turn away from the social point of view and think about yourself. While you may want to live a moral life, you want to avoid  painful feelings of guilt and shame and concomitant impulses to withdraw or retaliate. Being stuck in the negative vibration feelings of guilt and shame makes it impossible to enjoy the positive and productive parts of life. I do have an answer. Instead of guilt, shame and punishment, let’s look at the concept of responsibility. Responsible and productive behavior also leads to contentment and happiness. Responsible behavior can include fixing mistakes, feeling proud instead of wallowing in guilt. So let’s consider the concept of taking responsibility for mistakes instead of feeling bad because of the error of your ways. I even want to do away with the words guilt and shame. (One caveat. Guilt is codified within the legal system and the word should be reserved for Court proceedings, not left to fling around in normal life.)


We need to substitute the concept of responsibility for mistakes instead of guilt and punishment. Let’s start with a situation where a behavior has been problematic; you are feeling guilty or being criticized as guilty. Ask yourself: did I make a mistake? A mistake is simply a behavior that should not have occurred (or a desirable behavior that was avoided.) Unless you are an absolute perfectionist  you understand that everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes could be regrettable but are not bad, yucky or condemnable. Mistakes are not intrinsically bad. Furthermore, mistakes are unavoidable as you are learning to read and write and behave correctly in society. Mistakes should be viewed as natural learning experiences in life. The next step in the process would be to consider your responsibility for the mistake and whether any harmful consequences resulted from the mistake. If so, you should be the one to consider how to correct the mistake or the consequences of the mistake. Once you figure out your best strategy to correct your mistakes, you can and should feel proud of yourself. Feeling proud leads us to feel moral and healthy and should lead us into the positive happiness high vibration zone mentioned earlier in this article.


How can you fix or atone for your mistakes? Recognize that your behavior in the situation was unfortunate and that you made a mistake. If appropriate, say that you are sorry for your behavior, but never stop there. Do something positive and helpful to correct the situation. As icing on the cake, you can do something positive for society: making a donation, helping a neighbor, praying for peace, whatever positive contribution makes you feel proud of yourself. What if the mistake occurred a long time ago and you have no way to apologize or acknowledge your mistake? You can double up on your “icing” behaviors which benefit others in society. Love your neighbor as yourself and you’ll end up in the positive zone yourself and draw others into compassionate and peaceful behavior.


Shame is more debilitating than guilt and may require extra steps with positive, compassionate and loving behavior which you can and should direct toward yourself. No one needs to experience such excruciating painful feelings based on mistakes which others make it every day.  Debilitating shame may require therapeutic help so that you start to feel positive about correcting mistakes and learning redemption.


As you are beginning to work with this new approach you may still find yourself feeling the conditioned negative emotions we call guilt and shame.  You’ll want to forgive others for teaching you those feelings and forgive yourself for any lingering negative feelings about your actions.  There’s help available!  Take a look at the article on Ho’oponopono in this Advice Line section of this website. You can use this concept and the beautiful music for forgiveness and comfort to wind your way back into the positive life state.


You may be wondering about really immoral, hurtful behavior and whether this approach is appropriate in this situation. It is not. There are individuals who feel moral superiority and entitled to harmful behavior toward others. Hitler, for example. These individuals do not in fact feel shame or guilt, nor do they see their behavior as mistakes which should be corrected. Yes this is a different situation. Society must step in to stop their harmful behavior and take away their power, isolate these individuals and help their victims if possible recover what they have lost.


For you, my readers, I extend heart-based love and compassion. Love yourself, love others and feel proud when you correct your mistakes and release the negative self judgments caused by guilt and shame.