If your life is being affected by negative self-judgment, learn how to win the blame game and move toward self-compassion, forgiveness and acceptance.
By Robin L. Flanigan
Everyone deals with shame and guilt. It’s part of being human. We tell ourselves stories about being inherently worthless or hopelessly unlovable—stories that form a sort of shield used to protect us from talking about our vulnerabilities.
Shame and guilt are two sides of the same coin, different things that often get experienced together and tend to feed our negative self-judgments. But they can both be debilitating, so knowing how they’re distinct can be a big help in what to do with ourselves—our perception of ourselves, in particular—when we feel either one.
According to psychologist Brené Brown, a world-renowned researcher on the topic, shame means I am bad. Guilt means I did something bad.
Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, and eating disorders, to list just a few, says Brown. When unresolved trauma is the reason behind deep-rooted shame, it can be even more difficult to move toward self-compassion, forgiveness and acceptance, all necessary for healing.
Guilt, meanwhile, though just as powerful and potentially crippling, can have an upside by helping us stay in line with our personal values. Even so, researchers at the University of Manchester in 2012 proved Sigmund Freud right: brain scans show that people with depression are more prone to guilt than those who have never experienced depression.
Mike has spoken to tens of thousands of people around the world about how to cope with depression, which, for him, includes wrestling with shame and guilt. He is the founder of Transforming Stigma, an organization that speaks out against the stigma of mental health challenges.
“I’m carrying around a lot of emotional pain, and I feel ashamed about that, especially when I’m around people who don’t understand,” says Mike, who lives in New York City. “And I can’t always be present for people the way I want to, so I feel guilty about that.”
He can get caught up in a cycle: anger, then regret, then guilt, then depression. Although he identifies as “a very spiritual person,” he sometimes questions whether he has been handed some kind of punishment.
“The key for me this past year has been emotional sobriety,” says Mike, who sees a psychiatrist monthly and a therapist weekly, and is part of a weekly mental health support group. “It’s about learning to be able to show up for my emotions regardless of how I feel. It doesn’t necessarily take away the shame or the guilt, but the level of awareness I have now has made it easier for me to manage things in life around the depression.”
Shame is so prevalent, it’s got its own field of research.
Brown, at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has described shame as “the most human primitive emotion that we experience” that, if left unchecked, “will creep into every corner and crevice of your life.”
It is an intensely painful feeling—from something we’ve experienced, done or neglected to do—that destroys our ability to see ourselves as worthy of love and connection.
“Shame has a seed that grows and takes up a lot of psychological space,” says Robin Belamaric, MD, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Maryland. “If that seed is planted in adulthood, it’s still extremely painful, but it affects your identity in less pervasive ways than if it was planted fairly early.”
We can start experiencing shame as early as 15 months, which helps explain why it can be so deep-seated and damaging. Authority figures can force-feed an identity or way of living that creates a double narrative for children who wind up asking, “Who am I? And who am I supposed to be?”
As a result, those children can grow up with a sense that they’re fundamentally flawed—a perception often accompanied by lifelong self-doubt.
When Kay of Michigan behaved poorly as a child, her mother would point her finger and say, “Shame, shame on you.” This happened a lot because Kay, admittedly, liked to push boundaries. As a result, however, she internalized the message that she wasn’t a good person.
It’s about learning to be able to show up for my emotions regardless of how I feel. It doesn’t necessarily take away the shame or the guilt, but the level of awareness I have now has made it easier for me to manage things in life around the depression.
“I always wondered if there was something bad about me because I really wanted to do these things but my mother was always reprimanding and shaming me,” she recalls. “I didn’t let her know that it hurt me; I would talk back. But ever since I’ve had this fear that I’m not quite good enough, not quite pure enough, that maybe I’m an evil force in the world.”
Kay has spent years in therapy to deal with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which manifests in part as compulsive hand washing to reduce shame-related anxiety. She says she has come a long way, particularly since the end of a seven-year marriage that contributed to her negative self-image. She has pursued new relationships and nurtured connections with friends because “I don’t want to miss out on life,” she says. Even so, she adds, “Underneath everything, I’m still always questioning myself.”
Cognitive behavior therapy has been shown to reduce feelings of shame and self-judgment in people with social anxiety disorder, according to research published in the scientific journal PLOS One.
Belamaric believes most people are far less deserving of the nagging, often exhausting shame they feel than they think they are.
“I give my clients a shame test,” she says. “I tell them, if you think you’ve done something really bad and you feel terrible about it, and you think you did it because of who you are, you should ask yourself, ‘When I woke up this morning, did I smile big and bright because I fantasized about finding somebody to screw with and that was going to be my treat for the day?’ If the answer is no, then shame is not the appropriate response.”
Belamaric runs a dialectical behavioral therapy group, in which she helps people learn skills for self-regulation, effective interpersonal relationships, and mindfulness. She urges them to break free from what Brown, the shame researcher, calls “the trance of unworthiness.”
“We have a physical urge to isolate from other people when we feel shame, but that just perpetuates it,” Belamaric says. “The better thing is to expose it to the sunlight and to be upfront about the things that are your vulnerabilities.”
That takes self-compassion, a way of looking at ourselves without judgment, but with understanding and love.
“If we can offer ourselves the same kindness we can offer somebody else, we can turn things around,” notes Jodie Skillicorn, DO, a psychiatrist in Ohio. “Our brain is so amazingly malleable. It’s constantly changing with every thought and every action.”
Skillicorn uses Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to help clients create space from shame. If you can see a past trauma through the eyes of your younger self, she explains, you can view yourself and the situation with more compassion so you don’t need to bring shame from the past into the future.
“It’s not an intellectual understanding, it’s about getting out of our heads and connecting emotionally with what happened, which is hard to do,” Skillicorn says.
But once that connection is made, we have more choice in how we respond when a person or situation makes us feel ashamed. And that choice is a powerful tool.
One of Skillicorn’s favorite stories, one she often shares with clients, is a Native American parable called “Two Wolves,” in which a grandfather tells his grandson about a great fight going on inside him. The fight is between two wolves, the grandfather says. One is evil and the other is good. It is a fight that goes on inside everyone. The grandson asks which wolf will win. The grandfather’s reply: “The one you feed.”
While shame starts from the outside in—when we look to others for acceptance or approval—guilt starts from the inside out, according to Frank Fetterolf, MD, a psychiatrist in Pennsylvania.
It’s like an ethical distress signal that tells us we’re not living up to our own standards or rules in general.
“It’s hard to feel ashamed if nobody else is involved, but with guilt, you know you did something wrong and you feel like you’ve let yourself down,” says Boston psychiatrist Gary Warstadt, MD, who weaves elements of cognitive behavior therapy into his psychodynamic psychotherapy practice.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Guilt, which can be experienced as early as ages three to six, gives us an opportunity to course-correct—not only to alter future behavior, but to become more attuned to intentional decisions that encourage positive self-talk.
The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine outlines some major differences between healthy and unhealthy guilt. Appropriate (healthy) guilt is caused when we break objective definitions of right and wrong, for instance, while irrational (unhealthy) guilt comes from acting in a way that breaks irrational standards of behavior developed early in childhood to please an adult. Appropriate guilt resolves as we repair the damage we caused, while irrational guilt remains until we correct irrational beliefs.
And whereas appropriate guilt gives us the opportunity to take responsibility for harm done and seek forgiveness from those affected, irrational guilt can be mitigated by working to understand that everyone possesses a combination of strengths and weaknesses, as well as connecting with others.
In 2012, researchers from the University of Manchester found that people with depression experience guilt differently than those without depression. Those who’d had depression did not experience a strong “coupling” of two brain regions: the one responsible for guilt and the one responsible for knowledge of appropriate behavior.
If we can offer ourselves the same kindness we can offer somebody else, we can turn things around … our brain is so amazingly malleable. It’s constantly changing with every thought and every action.
Dr. Roland Zahn, a researcher involved in the study, explained at the time that “this ‘decoupling’ only occurs when people prone to depression feel guilty or blame themselves, but not when they feel angry or blame others. This could reflect a lack of access to details about what exactly was inappropriate about their behavior when feeling guilty, thereby extending guilt to things they are not responsible for and feeling guilty for everything.”
Warstadt encourages clients to question their guilt-prone beliefs.
I ask them to spend a few weeks telling me what they’ve done wrong and to explain why that accounts for how they feel about themselves,” he says. “Usually by the end of that process, they say, ‘Actually, I’m not quite sure what I’ve done wrong,’ or ‘The guilt that I feel is way out of proportion to what I did.’”
New York’s Jason hasn’t been able to shake the guilt thrust on him at around eight years old when his stepfather blamed him—instead of his drinking—for dysfunctional family dynamics. At the same time, he also felt guilty whenever his mother was upset, even though her husband was often the cause.
“That was four decades ago, but it feels deep down like I’m still living those days, that I haven’t grown up,” says Jason, who has depression and generalized anxiety disorder. “It feels like the guilt is still running the show.”
He works hard to identify thoughts before they become feelings or behaviors. In this way, he can “pick out the good thoughts” and write down bad thoughts “before they stick.”
Mike, from New York City, does his own writing for 30 minutes each day—all about his feelings, which he says has changed his life.
“I’ve learned a lot about who I am,” he says. “Running to my feelings has given me an opportunity to learn about myself in a whole new way.”
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How to win the blame game
Remove negative self-judgment and move toward self-compassion and forgiveness:
Adopt a growth mindset. Reshape your relationship with mistakes so they become life lessons instead of “an accumulating pile of crap that might overwhelm you,” says licensed psychologist Robin Belamaric, MD, PhD. “Instead, think about it being something you own now, firsthand knowledge of how to do something different next time.”
Examine your motivation. Intent matters. Most people don’t set out to be self-defeating or counterproductive. “We get lost and fail at things for a variety of reasons,” says Gary Warstadt, MD. “Try not to beat yourself up.”
Question yourself. When Mike is wrestling with shame or guilt, he talks to himself. “I say, ‘You feel this way. You hate it. What are you going to do about it?” Sometimes an answer comes, sometimes it doesn’t. “But it forces me to become more proactive,” he says.
Don’t take their word for it. Someone else may try to make you feel shame or guilt, but how those comments land is up to you. “The thought of one person out of seven billion shouldn’t matter,” says Jason. “Their words don’t have to hit that deep.”
Printed as “Shame and Guilt: Two Sides of the Same Coin”, Spring 2018
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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