I often hear clients report that they experience guilt and shame in relation to life experiences or presenting problems. Usually, these terms are referred to in ways that share the same meaning. In this article, I would like to explore how therapists perceive these two terms. One can be a very useful way to explore change, while the other simply burdens us, and works against us when we are trying to make adjustments in our life.
I would like to start with the term "shame." Webster defines shame as "a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute." It is also defined as " the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper,ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another." Although shame is defined as a feeling, it is also an internalized perspective which is tied to thought or perception. Typically, shame allows very little room for us to be different, and as such, many of us who experience shame will continue to experience ourselves in this way, because it does not invite us to become different. Having a shame based perspective of ourselves usually results in us having a negative self image, which then contributes to acting out on that negative perspective. The way we need to respond to shame is to redefine ourselves in new ways, usually in opposition to the shame. We will usually feel stuck until we can alter our internalized perspective, and transform it.
Now, lets move on to guilt. Guilt is very different from shame. Lets consider this definition: "the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty." Now, this is not a mental health definition, however, let me make the transition for you. In my clinical work, I see people who feel guilt "when there is a disconnect or too wide of a gap between an internal belief and an outwardly manifested action."
For example, lets say that someone has the internalized belief that they should be on time to events and commitments. When they show up late to the next event, there is an internal warning what goes off, and the feeling of guilt manifests itself.
The interesting thing about guilt is that it is simply indicating to us that we are too far out of agreement with ourselves, and that we need to make an adjustment. Now, the fascinating thing about this is that guilt doesn't care of you change your behavior to match your belief, or if you change your belief to match your behavior. As soon as you close the gap, guilt goes away and is resolved, because you are more congruent between your belief and action.
The next time you experience guilt, simply explore within yourself the gap between your belief and your action, and determine which one you need to change. As soon as you make the necessary adjustment, guilt will resolve.
If you or someone you know needs clinical assistance in resolving guilt, feel free to contact me to schedule an appointment.
Anthony T. Alonzo, DMFT, LMFT, CFLE