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Looking at Guilt and Shame

When we feel guilty, we feel bad because we have done something that was wrong (e.g., sped, caused someone injury) or believed that was wrong (e.g., did not return a phone call). Guilt is thinking we ‘should have done’ or ‘should not have done’ something, and about our obligations.

Jungian Mario Jacoby distinguishes “leftover guilt” as guilt from past authority figures for naughty or disapproving behaviour. He terms the guilt placed on oneself by adult moral or ethical behavior (e.g., not going to church) as “self-imposed guilt.”

We need to be aware of our internal voices of authority, rules and the Über parent that impose fixed standards on what we ‘should,’ ‘have to’ and ‘must’ do. This hounding can lead to internal anger at parts of us not living up to these often out-dated, rigid and collective standards.

If guilt has any function, it is to teach us lessons and resolve issues, and comes with the hope of making amends to others and ourselves. Interestingly, guilt will disappear if we have learned the lesson.

Shame is a deeper injury to self than guilt and results in a loss of self-respect.

Shame makes us feel worthless, exposed, degraded, and humiliated without having done anything ‘bad’ or wrong. For example, we can be ashamed of our body size or our rusty car, when in fact we have done nothing wrong.

Dreams bring images of exposure and nakedness to symbolize shame. One of the origins of shame is from the word ‘skem,’ meaning, “to cover.” We often lower and cover our blushing faces when experiencing shame. Hair and hats may also be used to hide our shame.

There is a connection between shame and anxiety. Anxiety, which often escalates to fear, emerges when the ego’s sense of autonomy and need for control is threatened. In certain situations, we may feel anxious about getting into a shameful situation such as experiencing failure or disapproval. Examples include fear of failure as seen with exam anxiety or facing the consequences of not getting a job.

Anxiety and its subsequent shame are also seen with the fear of feeling incompetent or when failing to meet our goals and our (or others’) expectations. The greater the ego demand on how we want to be seen (self-expectations), the easier it is to fall into feelings of inferiority, anxiousness and shame.

This shame-anxiety connection leads to inhibition, lack of trying and shyness. We become afraid of standing out in a crowd, opening up and expressing our selves, as these actions risk revealing any flaws we have to others. However, by silencing our selves, we harm our psyches and souls which leads to further shame.

Working with guilt and shame can change some of our long-held misconceptions of how we view ourselves. We need to ask, “Did I really do anything purposely wrong?” Try to identify what aspects of yourself you deem ‘wrong’ and tend to hide from others.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.