Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are very powerful emotions – arguably, two of the most powerful emotions that we humans experience. Whether it’s from abuse that occurred during childhood, feelings of rejection or failure, or feeling inadequacy with our own self-worth – we’ve all experienced a degree of these emotions at some stage of life.

Essentially, they are both intrinsically intertwined, being distinguished as “what I did” (guilt), versus “who I am” (shame). And since shame is directed towards some aspect of disappointment in the nature of who we are, it is usually much more painful.

There are five specific forms of shame, each with the ability to create different implications on our behaviour and perceptions towards our self and others.


Primary Maladaptive Shame

There are many problematic beliefs that we create within ourselves that make us feel this intense emotion. Primary maladaptive shame emerges as a core sense of oneself as worthless or unacceptably flawed.  It usually occurs as a result of child maltreatment or child-rearing practices that teach children that certain behaviour, thoughts, and feelings are unacceptable.  And unlike guilt, shame doesn’t commonly prompt constructive responses or active ways to figure out how to fix or improve what we feel is wrong.

Chronic low self-esteem, sense of worthlessness and self-contempt and chronic depression are some examples of this type of shame., It can cause us to isolate and withdraw from others, seek unrealistic standards of perfection, and develop aggressive reactive behaviour.


Shame From Violating Personal Standards

Shame stemming from violating your own personal set of standards and values can provoke more intense feelings of self-contempt and disgust.  Often people cannot forgive themselves for behaviours, such as failure, inadequacy, wasted opportunities, etc. The regrets about specific behaviours or mistakes are then extended to the condemnation of the entire self.  People hide the self in shame and engage in a variety of avoidant behaviours such as withdrawal from social interactions or substance abuse.


Primary Shame From Childhood Maltreatment

Shame is a common emotion that’s used during child-rearing. Through the actions of parents or guardians, children learn which behaviours, thoughts, and desires are ‘wrong’ and ‘unacceptable’ according to how they’ve been raised. So shame inevitably begins to shape their own individuality over time, often forcing children to conceal different aspects of themselves, such as their sexuality or weaknesses.

But when children are either sexually, physically or emotionally abused by their parents or significant others, this is when shame can take on a very deep and destructive presence.

The internalized sense of themselves as unlovable, flawed, dirty, incompetent, or worthless are examples of what children can learn to associate themselves with as a result of childhood maltreatment. This type of primary and dysfunctional shame produces feelings of responsibility for actions that they had no control over, which can eventually lead to very destructive, unhealthy behaviour and addiction.


Shame From Social Rejection

Rejection is a big fear for many of us, and for some people, it’s a profoundly painful emotion that hits deep. So naturally, with this internalized fear, some people will use avoidance in an attempt to prevent themselves from enduring that pain – even if it means withdrawing from social interactions. The pain of rejection, in this case, tends to far outweigh the pleasure of engaging with others. It is often augmented by fear of negative evaluation, sense of oneself as worthless, defective or inferior as compared to others.


Secondary Shame Generated By Self-Criticism

When you fail to meet your own standards or eventually run into a situation that you’ve been striving to avoid, self-criticism that often emerges can end up producing a toxic level of secondary shame., Many people demonstrate a strong tendency toward self-criticism which takes the form of an inner dialogue, a constant commentary and evaluation /judgement of what they are experiencing. Often this dialogue is harsh and self-abusive when people scold, insult, and denounce themselves for their mistakes or imperfections. This self-critical process, in turn, damages self-esteem and intensifies shame-producing thought patterns.


How To Overcome Feelings Of Shame

Both guilt and shame are intrinsically connected to our social experiences, whether it’s through our family, friends, education, church, workplace and more. Through these social environments, we develop our ideas about what is right and what is wrong which can carry with us throughout our lives. And depending on our experiences, those ideas and self-perceptions can intensify and transform into destructive, unhealthy behaviours.

But as difficult as both guilt and shame are, they do provide us with some benefits. Aspects of these emotions can be functional and positive, allowing us to learn how to become more sensitive, humble and respectful individuals.

If you feel that guilt and shame are powerful forces that control much of what you think and do, reach out to us at Ottawa Counselling. We can help guide you in navigating those problematic patterns by getting some insights into their origin and by restructuring your maladaptive emotion schemes.

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