Guilt and shame are similar but different emotions. We need to understand the difference, as they each require a completely different approach to finally heal and release them. When we feel guilt, we feel bad about something we did or neglected to do. When we feel shame, we feel bad about who we are. When we feel guilty, we need to learn that it is okay to make mistakes. When we feel shame we need to learn that it is okay to be who we are.
As with any other emotion, “holding on” to Guilt or Shame undermines our physical, emotional and psychological health. For emotional healing we must “let go”. No matter what emotional healing therapy you look at, they all emphasise the importance of “letting go” of negative emotions to heal and move on. When you feel blocked and stuck it is caused by “holding on” to emotions that have served their purpose and no longer serve your best interests.
All emotions are ‘good for you’ in that they are a message from the more intuitive part of us about what is going on around us, and what we need to pay attention to. If we understand the message it will guide us to take appropriate action for our own benefit. Once the situation has been responded to appropriately the emotion is naturally released.
If the emotion from an event that happened long ago is still holding you back, more work needs to be done. If it is not released it can have many detrimental affects. You may be very aware of the event and regret it often. However, you may only be aware of the detrimental effects, but have no idea what the root cause of the stuck emotion is.
WHAT IS GUILT?
I have written about Guilt in a previous blog (Feeling Guilty is a Gift, not a Burden) which describes how to respond healthily to guilt, and then let it go. Sometimes however those techniques are not enough. Something prevents you from responding appropriately , or even if you do, the guilty feelings won’t go away.
Guilt is anger directed inwards, towards our self. Unresolved guilt is an ongoing ‘anger at self’ for causing others pain, that can trigger an over the top reaction whenever we make another mistake We reproach ourselves for having done it, as it is not the kind of thing we intend to do to another. It is not who we are. We have let ourselves down. If only we had known then, what we know now, we would have done things differently, so that we didn’t hurt. Why didn’t we know? We are angry with ourselves for failing to act in accordance with our own values and what we believe to be right. We should have known. We judge ourselves, beat ourselves up, and relentlessly punish ourselves. This response to mistake making may have started following an incident that you remember well , or it may have persisted for a long time, without any memory of where it all started.
Consider this example of a root cause of unresolved guilt that a client was not aware of. Lauren had low self esteem and anger issues, which she discovered stemmed from a long forgotten childhood event at age 3. In hypnosis she recalled her 3 year old self playing with her guinea pig Sandy on her own, after which it was discovered the door to the hutch was wide open and Sandy was missing. Everyone was worried Sandy had fallen from the raised hutch and injured herself. Lauren’s mother shouted and told her off, saying she could have killed her pet. Sandy was eventually found none the worse for her adventure, but 3 year old Lauren didn’t mean to hurt Sandy, and didn’t understand what she had done wrong that might have killed her. She was worried that she might accidentally make a terrible mistake again, because she didn’t know how to do it properly.
The meaning she gave the event was that she could not trust herself to get things right. Without intending to, she might actually hurt or kill someone. This became a limiting belief controlling her future feelings and behaviour. She had no confidence in herself, and was unable to commit to anything, constantly procrastinating. It was always important to her to get things right first time and she could not bear it if anyone suggested she hadn’t got it right. There was always an underlying ‘anger at self’, which meant she was easily triggered by judgements from others.
Lauren subconsciously believed that she had the potential to unwittingly and accidentally do something that could lead to hurting someone badly or ruining something, and it had held her back from reaching her full potential for decades. A re-examination of the event made her realise that she was not at fault at all, because she had not been old enough to be responsible for taking care of the guinea pig and she should have been more closely supervised by her parents. Her 3 year old behaviour was entirely age appropriate and she was able to accept that she could stop holding herself back to prevent herself from making the same mistake. Instead she recognised that she was able to learn from her mistakes and therefore completely trust herself to get things right. She sealed that in by forgiving herself for her mistaken beliefs and also for holding on to the guilt and self judgement for so long. Lauren felt lighter, more energised, confident and motivated to take action. Best of all she learned to love herself.
HOW TO HEAL UNRESOLVED GUILT
If this description of ‘anger at self’ rings true for you, then you may well be holding on to guilt well past it’s use by date. Guilt is not an emotion that is meant to be a form of ongoing punishment. It is an emotion that enables you to make amends and learn to do better. Once you have done that, it is time to give yourself permission to forgive yourself and let it go.
If you are able to identify the event you feel guilty about, do as Lauren did. Re-evaluate it from a more informed perspective. Were you also too young to have known any better? Should anyone else share responsibility for what happened? Have you learnt from it so that you will do better in future? Have you done your best to make amends? When the emotion has served its purpose, holding on to it as a form of self punishment, or keeping yourself in check to ensure you don’t do it again, will only make things worse rather than better.
It’s also quite possible to carry a burden of guilt, without knowing where it came from. It’s interesting, but not essential to know the history of it. All that is required is an understanding that you have the power to release unresolved guilt. If you no longer consciously remember the event, feeling guilty about it can serve no useful purpose anyway. There’s nothing to learn.
Holding on to guilt after it has served its purpose will not only hurt you, but other people too. Why will it hurt other people? Because any time you accidentally hurt someone in the future, especially someone you care about, it will trigger you into the old unresolved ‘anger at self’ which you may direct at the injured party. In order to protect yourself from the painful feeling of guilt, you are likely to deny all responsibility and even blame them for what has gone wrong.
Instead of accepting responsibility for your mistakes, you defend yourself, justify your behaviour and insist that you did nothing wrong. Not only does that mean you further upset the injured party because there is no apology, but it prevents you from learning from your mistakes and you are therefore likely to make the same mistake again.
Perhaps you will agree that there nothing to be gained from holding on to the guilt and everything to be gained from releasing it for the good of all?
If so, you are now able to make an informed decision to forgive yourself and to let go of any and all guilt that you are still holding onto from past known, or unknown, events. These negative emotions are held in the body creating stress and tension, and also in the mind creating negative focus and excessive thinking.
Set your intention to release the guilt, and give yourself permission to release it now. Be kind to yourself and recognise that even if punishment was appropriate, you have surely paid your dues and suffered enough. Those who have committed serious pre-meditated crimes probably get lesser sentences than you are giving yourself!
Now state out loud your decision to forgive and release. As you hear the words, see and/or feel it happening. It takes your 100% heart felt decision and declaration to change your perception, beliefs and emotions. There is no magic way to do this, just your way. But here is a suggestion if you need more guidance. Be sure to maintain your ongoing attitude of forgiveness by repeating your decision as often as needed.
- Sit quietly and comfortably where you will be undisturbed. Take a few easy deep breaths. Declare out loud, with conviction and commitment:
- It is my free will decision to release any and all guilt from the past.
- I willingly take full responsibility for all of my actions and for correcting any errors. I learn from my mistakes so that I can do better in future.
- I am grateful for the ability to feel guilt, so that I can keep myself aligned with my best intentions.
- When guilt has served this purpose, I command, direct, compel, instruct my mind and body to release all remaining guilt.
- I forgive myself for those times I have misunderstood the positive benefit of guilt and judged and punished myself for my mistakes.
- I forgive myself for holding on to the guilt after it has served its purpose.
- As I forgive myself, I feel the guilt releasing from my mind and body, replaced by a feeling of lightness and self acceptance.
- As I forgive myself, I see the tension of guilt in my body dissipating, replaced by a sense of calmness and peace.
- I command, direct, compel my mind and body to release all remaining guilt. It is done. I am complete.
WHAT IS SHAME?
Shame is often confused with guilt as it also involves feeling bad about ourselves. But it is not our own assessment, based on our own ethics and morals. It is the assessment or judgement of someone else, based on their own opinions or standards or agendas. Shaming targets who a person is, not what they do People experiencing shame are struck by the overwhelming belief that they—as opposed to their actions or feelings—are bad.
When we have been shamed, we feel hurt that someone else has judged us, and labelled us, as intrinsically unacceptable, bad, not good enough in a way that is irredeemable. We come to believe that others perceive us as unworthy and reject and exclude us for reasons we can do nothing about. Shame is a most destructive emotion that cannot be underestimated. Shame is a wounding of not belonging and a fear of disconnection. When we are trapped in shame, we’ve lost ourselves and feel unworthy of being loved.
We may initially have a strong feeling of anger and injustice because in our opinion the judgements are not deserved or valid. What makes it worse, is that the judgement is out there and it seems mud sticks and you can’t shake it off. However, as the character assassination continues and is even shared publicly, then we start to believe that we are indeed bad to the core.
We can also take shame on ourselves, and feel ashamed of ourselves without anybody actually judging us. In this case we are building on past woundings and predicting or assuming that others would reject us if they knew who we were, and feeling shame because of what we are convinced others think about us.
As well as making this extremely limiting self belief our own, shame is also about the pain of others rejecting who we are. We will be more susceptible to shaming if we need to be accepted by the one shaming us and care what they think about us, which is usually the case when we are a dependent child.
Shame often results from abusive relationships, whether physical, mental, psychological, sexual abuse, where it is in the interests of the abuser to make their victim wrong, flawed and unworthy. Bullies always try to diminish, undermine and control their chosen victim with endless name calling and put downs, and hurtful treatment. The worse they can make you feel about yourself , the better they can feel about themselves by comparison. Successful, attractive, intelligent and talented people make them feel inadequate. Rather than working to raise themselves up, they try to bring others down.
Parents might inadvertently shame their child by saying with exasperation such things as “why can’t you be clever/quiet/tidy/good like your sister/brother”. Teachers might shame their pupils though harsh discipline, implying they are not good enough, not clever enough, they can’t concentrate, they don’t try hard enough, will never amount to anything, or don’t deserve to succeed.
Feeling shame will impact significantly on your confidence and self esteem, as you try to manage your feelings of innate unworthiness. You may feel shy and avoid social occasions and friendships. You may feel so uncomfortable around people that you panic and need to leave events early. You are quiet in company. You have no voice and can’t speak up. You may experience self hatred and self loathing. Or you might overcompensate and try and second guess how others think you should behave. You put on an act of being that confident, likeable person that you think they will accept, but it is exhausting and stressful because you never quite know if you are getting it right. You are too nervous to think straight and might speak out of turn and embarrass yourself. You might come across as arrogant and over confident. You might feel different and strive to be the same as everyone else, so you can feel you belong. You cannot just be your true authentic self because you believe you would be rejected. Being too scared to show your true self, further reinforces your own belief that you aren’t good enough just as you are.
The challenge with healing shame is the very belief that you are inherently, irredeemably flawed, bad, and unacceptable. This is a very limiting belief because it says you cannot change, and so there is no point in working on yourself to overcome it, because it won’t work. Once you understand the root cause of shame, you can immediately see that this is not true. You can heal shame.
HOW TO HEAL UNRESOLVED SHAME
- REJECT THE ABUSERS NEGATIVE JUDGEMENTS
The first step in healing shame is to recognise that all the abuse, bullying, gaslighting, criticism, hurtful treatment directed at you says everything about the abuser, and nothing about you. The true motivation for their behaviour towards you is their own feelings of inadequacy, or their own unhealed emotional or psychological damage from their own painful life experiences.
“Hurt people, hurt people”.
The truth is that a more emotionally balanced person would be able to show compassion and understanding to others and not judge and punish them, and certainly not for any personal attributes that they can do nothing about. When you have experienced the pain of your own stuck emotions, you can better understand those of the hurters and take pity on them for their inability to heal themselves. Unlike them, because you are reading this, you have chosen to transform your pain into something that benefits both yourself and others too. You are able to apply the Golden Rule, which is:
‘Treat others as you would want to be treated yourself”.
This understanding will enable you to reject the abuser’s hurtful judgements, opinions and fabricated labels, as baseless and simply a reflection of their own efforts to feel better about themselves. Their own pain must be so deep that they are happy to turn to selfish methods to ease their pain, without caring if it is at the expense of someone else.
It was only ever your own internalisation of their judgement, that you were inherently bad, that caused your stuck feelings of shame. As you reject that label and give it back to them, you can let go of the shame, and begin to embrace and accept who you really are. (And if you haven’t already done so, it is time to sever all connections with the perpetrators. Remove yourself entirely from that toxic environment. You deserve better.)
2. FORGIVE THE ABUSERS AND FORGIVE YOURSELF
Forgiveness will also help seal in the release of the limiting belief that said that you were not good enough just as you are. When you have finally deleted, eradicated and expunged from your mind, the self-limiting, self-deprecating, unchangeable, firewall protected belief that prevented you from accepting the authentic person that you were meant to be – and prevented you from loving yourself unconditionally- you will be ready to see that there is nothing wrong with you. There never was.
You can embrace the fact that you are meant to express yourself as who you really are, and you will discover that so much stress just drops away from you, when you give yourself permission to just be you. Keeping up an act of trying to be something you are not creates an enormous amount of stress and inner conflict.
So the second step for releasing shame is to forgive the abuser for programming you to accept their bullying opinions, and to forgive yourself for agreeing with them for so long. Forgiveness means that you let go of the thoughts and emotions that have been reinforcing and maintaining the belief that you were a bad person. It is a gift that you give to yourself. The hurters do not benefit at all. The problem came from outside of you, but the solution is a private inside job.
3. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR OWN OPINION.
The final step is to recognise that it is your own opinion of yourself that really matters, not the opinion of other people. The most important words, the most influential words you ever hear are the words you say to yourself. The most important opinion for you is your own opinion and your opinion of yourself gets stronger, more positive every day, as you exchange programmed self judgement for self praise. You are free to accept yourself just as you are. You don’t have to do anything, be anything or have anything to be loveable. Your job is to express your natural true self, and your own unique skills and talents. You are enough, just as you are.
Your positive feelings of self worth must always come from yourself. If you were to rely on other people to validate your self worth, you would always feel vulnerable and insecure. After all, you can’t control them and they could change their mind anytime. Be your best version of you and be proud of yourself. Be your own best friend that will never let you down.
Always remember that critical people criticise others because they feel inadequate and actually save the harshest criticism for themselves. Their opinion of you can’t affect you unless you give away your power and let it in. You’re not going to do that anymore!
Healing guilt and shame is about learning to love…starting with yourself.