Guilt and shame are natural feelings that everyone experiences at some point or another. Despite that, they can be one of the most unpleasant feelings in the world. It’s amazing how quickly guilt or shame can kick in for the smallest events in our lives. And how difficult they are to get rid of, so that we can continue with the rest of our day without feeling overwhelmed and troubled.
When you feel guilt or shame, you torture yourself with questions and start to lose connection with reality. To understand why that happens, let’s examine the difference between emotions and feelings.
What is an emotion?
Emotions are lower-level responses that occur in the subcortical regions of the brain, the amygdala, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortices. Emotions create biochemical reactions in your body that alter your physical state. These changes can be measured in your blood flow and brain activity. They can also be seen in your body language and the micro-expressions that you make with your face.
Emotions are physical and instinctive. Evolution has programmed them into our genes, so that we can feel a rush in case of danger—and react to it to survive. That used to be true if you lived in the savanna and you saw a lion as you were hunting for food. Suddenly, something in your body tells you either to run… or to become the food.
Here’s an example of a 21st-century emotion: it’s what happens in your body when you think you’ve lost your phone or wallet. The adrenaline starts rushing through your body, prompting you to search for your lost possession.
What is a feeling?
Feelings originate in the neocortical regions of the brain. They are mental associations and reactions to emotions, and are subjective being influenced by personal experience, beliefs, and memories. Emotions occur on the spur of the moment. Feelings are how we interpret the moment—and its impact on ourselves—after it has happened.
Feelings are a mental portrayal of what is going on in your body when you have an emotion. It is the byproduct of your brain perceiving and assigning meaning to the emotion. Only in the English language, there are more than 4,000 feelings that people can assign to the events that have happened to them.
What is the difference between guilt and shame?
Guilt is the remorse you feel when you think that you’ve done something wrong. You can feel guilty because you have unrealistically high standards for yourself. Or even because someone manipulated you into feeling guilty, even though you did nothing wrong. But more on these later.
Shame is the pain you feel when you think that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. Here’s the difference between guilt and shame: guilt is connected to feeling responsible or remorseful for doing something wrong, while shame comes from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous which makes you feel like you are a bad person. It’s caused by an innate sense of being defective or unworthy: “I’m bad, I’m unlovable, I’m simply not enough.”
How can you deal with guilt?
Guilt is actually a mask for fear: fear of expressing your thoughts, fear of making a mistake, fear of coming out as too aggressive, and so on. When you feel guilty, it’s actually your mind’s way to rationalize an emotion that you haven’t been aware of lately. Doing something impulsive or irrational may put you in this position.
For example, you’re overweight and you’re on a diet. You had been following it strictly until today, but you went to a fast food joint and binged on burgers and soda at lunch. Now, you feel guilty for doing it. But you need to dig deeper: what caused you to act this way in the first place?
When dealing with guilt, you always need to go back to the roots of your actions. How have you felt for the past day, week, or month before you did this? Were you angry, sad or frustrated at someone? Did you get your needs met? Did you acknowledge the possibility to communicate them better with your partner/boss/friend/parent? In the example with you being overweight, did you allow yourself a cheat day or were you actually eating away an emotion? Maybe that burger was a substitute for not wanting to acknowledge and confront something else.
Answering these questions will give you a better understanding of your behavioral patterns. If you don’t want to continue experiencing guilt, you need to become more honest with yourself and with other people. You need to learn how to love and respect yourself enough to honor your truth. If you don’t, you will probably continue being in conflict with constantly not doing the right thing.
What’s inflicted guilt and what to do about it?
As I promised, now I’m going to talk a little bit about the guilt others may inflict on you. It’s a kind of a punishment that another person may use in order to cause you pain and/or get something out of you.
For example, let’s imagine that your father or mother says: “I can’t believe you did this to me! I’ve done so much for you over the years and this is how you repay me?” In this case, they may be completely unconscious about the way that their words are hurting you. Or they may be manipulating you into feeling guilty. No matter what the case, you need to recognize this behavior as unhealthy and remove yourself from the situation—emotionally and physically.
You have no reason to feel guilty because you’re not obligated to do anything. If this person wants to express their frustration, they can do it in a different and healthy way: “I feel hurt that you didn’t do that for me.” See the difference? They don’t make it about YOU, they simply express their feelings about what happened between you and them. Unfortunately, few people recognize their own unhealthy behavior and have the desire to change. But you don’t have to be part of the majority that doesn’t.
How can you deal with shame?
Shame is one of the most toxic feelings. Not only because it’s absolutely unnecessary, but also because studies go as far as to claim that persistent negative feelings that cause stress may be the cause of autoimmune diseases. Hating yourself for who you are and wanting to change your reactions, thoughts and feelings lead to an imbalance of stress hormones in your body. Sometimes, this unbalance may actually lead to illness.
Let’s make it perfectly clear what shame is: it’s that painful and self-loathing feeling that you’re just not good enough, that you are a bad person, or that you need to become “someone else” to succeed. You are constantly searching for evidence to prove to yourself that you’re not enough. You keep pushing yourself to fit into other people’s opinions and expectations of you. And for what? To be approved by them? To be liked? To be loved? To be accepted? At the end of the day, is it really worth it?
When you feel shame, you’re abandoning yourself. I know it sounds bad. It is bad. You have no idea how bad it is for your mental health and well-being. Stop beating yourself up, trying to fit into someone else’s shoes, changing your appearance, or analyzing every little detail so that you can become ‘perfect.’ You’ll never be perfect and our imperfections are what makes us beautiful in the first place.
We’re all different and we don’t need to change anything but our attitude toward ourselves. Maybe someone made fun of you when you were in school or your parents weren’t very understanding of your childhood fears. Whatever it was, take a good look at yourself in the mirror. And say to yourself:
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Yes, you are. You beautiful, wonderful, unique human being. I’m talking to you. You ARE all these things. I know you may not feel there yet but I believe that you will reach your full potential. You just need to believe in yourself, too.
Stop shaming yourself. It’s useless. Start honoring your choices and taking responsibility for your actions.
If you need any help with that, I’m here for you.
Sending you lots of love and blessings,