The Pitfalls of Guilt and Shame

There have been times in our lives when most of us have struggled with issues of guilt or shame. I have. The night my mom and I put my dad into a nursing home was by far one of the worst moments in my life. To a great extent this was due to the extreme guilt I was feeling over my perceived abandonment of the father who loved and cared for me for the sixty years of my life. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s several months earlier, we kept him at home with my mom for as long as we could. But he required far more care than we were capable of giving him. The nursing home was better equipped to provide round-the-clock attention. Still, the guilt haunted me every night until his passing. No amount of intellectual reasoning eased my remorse. “How could I do this to him?” I questioned. “He doesn’t deserve it. He’s such a great dad. He should be at home where he wants to be.”

Guilt is the result of a sense of remorse over something we have done or failed to do. I once heard it described as “a bothered conscience.” Guilt emanates from our moral of sense right and wrong. If I am doing something I perceive to be morally acceptable, then guilt typically will not affect me. However, if I believe on any level that I shouldn’t do something I can become infected with feelings of reprehension.

Shame, on the other hand, more directly discloses our feelings of self. It reveals a sense of embarrassment for who we are more so that for an action we’ve taken. “I am so ashamed that I blamed you for something you had no part in. I’m a terrible friend.” Guilt comes from what I did. Shame is the result of who I am.

Most commonly, both guilt and shame are the direct result of the high, and often unattainable, expectations we have of ourselves. “I should be able to work full-time, help my children with their homework, spent time with my husband, care for my elderly parents, and still have time left for myself.” “I know I’m under a lot of pressure but I’m so ashamed that I lost my temper with you.” We are conditioned to believe that there is something inherently wrong with us if we do not live up to or exceed a certain standard of excellence.

Unresolved issues of both guilt and shame can lead to anger, depression, low self-esteem, relationship problems, health issues, and a general unhappiness in life. But one can move beyond these debilitating emotions.

First: pay attention to your self-talk. Negative comments will cause you more distress. Keep your internal dialogue positive.
Second: take ownership of the situation when necessary. If you are truly responsible for something, accept responsibility.
Third: Make any necessary changes to improve matters if possible.
Fourth: learn the lessons.
Fifth: Vow to do better next time.
Sixth: forgive yourself if needed.
Seventh: be compassionate with yourself rather than judgmental.
Eighth: put it behind you and move forward.

Emotions teach us a lot about ourselves. Each has importance and value. Be careful not to allow yourself to become entrapped in those that can become problematic. Resolve what is bothering you and move on to a more productive state of mind.

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