Dealing with Guilt and Shame Productively

Guilt and shame can prevent us attaining emotional freedom in our lives, but we don't have to accept their influence; instead, make a habit of dealing with guilt and shame productively.

Girl sitting in a corner

Although guilt, shame and anxiety are powerful emotions, learning to move past them is an essential step of personal growth that will bring you closer to emotional freedom.

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Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety (Prometheus Books, 2014) by Peter R. Breggin, MD, discusses the prehistoric origins of our negative emotions and theorizes that these emotions no longer serve a useful purpose in modern life. He suggests that dealing with guilt and shame, as well as anxiety, is a matter of recognizing and rejecting their control over our lives, and reaching greater emotional freedom by doing so. The following excerpt is from chapter 11, “Don’t People Need Some Guilt and Shame?”

When I talk about negative legacy emotions with my friends, patients, graduate students, and conference audiences, one question keeps coming up: “Don’t we need some guilt and shame?” The answer can transform our lives. When we fully grasp that we can live honorable and happy lives without clouding our minds with negative emotions, we begin our emotional liberation.

Why Do We Need an Absolute Rule?

Why do we need an uncompromising rule that guilt, shame, and anxiety have no place whatsoever in our lives? Because, like cocaine or alcohol to an addict, negative legacy emotions will seize any opportunity we give them and take over. Having gotten a piece of us, they will try to swallow us whole. We need absolute determination and all our strength to reject their influence.

Because the capacity for these emotions was built in by biological evolution and natural selection and then stimulated and amplified through childhood, we are programmed to believe we are supposed to feel these primitive, prehistoric emotions. As described earlier, when we feel guilty, we believe we are guilty— even in the absence of any rational explanation for the guilt. When we feel ashamed, we believe on some level that we deserve to feel rejected or worthless. When we feel anxious, we find reasons to justify our helpless feelings.

To flourish emotionally, we need to question and reject the idea that there is any justification for taking orders from guilt, shame, and anxiety. These negative emotions are imperfect remnants of evolution and child development that impede mature, rational, and loving conduct in adults.

The Ultimate Irrationality of Guilt and Shame

Those of us who know and work with victims of extreme physical, emotional, and sexual abuse can bear witness to how overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety have no basis in reality, sound ethics, or any other objective measure. They are the direct result of abuse.

Even after a court of law has found their abusers guilty and sent them to jail, adult victims of child abuse may continue to struggle with demoralizing feelings of guilt and shame. It seemingly makes no difference that they were only three, four, or five years old when they were physically, sexually, and mentally tortured. They blame themselves in ways that reason cannot rectify. Their negative legacy emotions are too deep to be uprooted by reality. These adults will need years of hard psychological work and affirming relationships to gain emotional freedom.

Why It Is Futile To Hope for Perpetrators to Feel Guilt or Shame

Intuitively, we imagine that perpetrators feel guilty and ashamed and only need a bigger dose of these negative emotions to stop abusing other people. Unfor­tunately, perpetrators typically have justifications for their behavior. They feel entitled to do what they did—that is why they did it! If confronted, instead of feeling remorse, they are likely to deny any memory of their actions. The truth is that they felt empowered by abusing helpless victims, and they have no incli­nation to feel bad about it.

Here is another key to life: People who seriously or persistently abuse other people almost never feel bad about it; instead, it is the victims who suffer emotionally. If you feel a great deal of guilt and shame, you almost certainly do not deserve it.

Emotional liberation thrives on a full awareness that these painful emotions do us no good and have no connection to our real value. They are always self-defeating when we act upon them. We will thrive to the degree that we are able to eradicate them from our emotional life.

Perpetrators may feel guilty, ashamed, or anxious about something else, such as being abused by their own parents. They may feel humiliated by the smallest sign of disrespect from a child, and they may feel guilty when someone in authority chides them. Nonetheless, they almost never feel guilty or ashamed about their abusive actions toward other people, including their own spouses, children, or employees.

It bears repeating: Perpetrators do not feel guilty, ashamed, or anxious about their vile actions; they feel justified, entitled, and empowered. Their innocent victims are the ones who end up with a lifetime legacy of self-defeating, negative emotions. If we are going through life feeling awful about ourselves, the odds are that our feelings do not reflect anything we have done wrong. Our internal misery is not about what we did to someone else. It is about our innate self-defeating emotions triggered in childhood, usually when someone did something harmful to us.

Are there any exceptions to these observations? Yes: People who do terrible things under circumstances that are not under their control commonly feel bad about it. Many soldiers return from combat with feelings of guilt and shame, but, when they committed violence, they were almost invariably acting under enormous duress and carrying out orders consistent with military ethics and tactics.

Individuals who become violent while taking psychiatric drugs often feel terrible about themselves afterward. As I describe in Medication Madness, psychiatric drugs can drive people to take actions that are wholly out of character. They suffer from what I call medication spellbinding (intoxication anosognosia)—a drug-induced brain disorder that renders them unable to control themselves, to appreciate what they are doing, or to recognize that they are under the influence of psychoactive substances. Afterward, they cannot believe they could do something so harmful to another person.

Why should victims feel bad about themselves while perpetrators do not? It only makes sense in light of the origins of negative legacy emotions in biological evolution and childhood rather than in sound ethics.

Remorse and Regret

It is important to recognize our mistakes, including how our bad judgment, selfishness, or self-absorption may have harmed people we love. When we rec­ognize what we have done wrong, we should make amends, when possible, and change our conduct. Then, it is time to forgive ourselves and find the courage and strength to live and love again.

If, instead, we continue to feel guilt and shame about our conduct and anxiety about our future relationships, this will only hold us back and deprive others of our contributions to life. We need to recognize our mistakes. We need to feel regret and remorse, to make amends, to change our behavior, and to forgive ourselves. If, instead, we persist in feeling guilty, ashamed, and anxious, we need to look further into why. We need especially to look for causes in our childhood, as well as in our current relationships with anyone who is continuing to make us feel bad about ourselves, including a parent or other family members.

Shouldn’t a Man Feel Guilty for Hitting His Wife?

A man has hit his wife. Shouldn’t he feel guilt? Partly, we want him to feel guilty as a punishment. Unfortunately, it rarely, if ever, works that way. When he struck his wife, he was probably feeling, “She deserves it,” or, “I’m not going to let her talk to me like that.” That is why he hit her—because he felt justified in doing so.

Let us suppose, for argument’s sake, that the violent husband simply lost his temper and, afterward, realizes he behaved badly and begins to feel guilty. First, it rarely happens this way. Second, feeling guilty is not really going to make him a better or more reliable husband. It might end up making him even angrier and more violent. People resent feeling guilty and often respond by getting angrier at the person they perceive to be causing their painful emotions.

Furthermore, many people respond to feeling guilty by refusing to think about what they have done. To avoid their guilt or shame, they deny how much they have hurt or offended others. Yes, feeling guilty would punish them emotionally after the fact, but it would probably not make them better, more respectful, or less dangerous.

It would be best for a man who has hit his wife to feel empathy for her and to recognize that he has done something dreadfully wrong. Ideally, he would cry with sadness over hurting and frightening her, betraying her trust, and failing to be a loving partner. He would then reassess his conduct, make amends for his brutality, and promise himself and his wife that he would never again threaten or harm her. However, if he were feeling guilty, he would more likely fake feeling remorseful and apologetic and, ultimately, get even angrier or sullenly withdraw. Guilt is not likely to encourage a positive or loving response, but empathy almost certainly will.

Guilt Makes Us Less Responsible

Feeling guilty and ashamed does not make us better people. It is not likely to improve our self-understanding or correct our misdeeds. Instead, it discourages us from thinking about ourselves in a constructive fashion. Guilt, shame, and anxiety are never our friends; people who encourage us to feel them are not being friendly.

These self-defeating emotions are potentially antilife, too often leading to suicide and violence. They are also antilife in a more subtle fashion: Commonly, they are hammered home to children to suppress their attempts to be self-assertive, self-determined, and independent. In adulthood, these negative emotions can rob individuals of free will by miring them in painful and even paralyzing feelings.

In adult life, our self-defeating primitive emotions actively oppose our best aspects, such as empathy, love, and creativity. They can inhibit positive psychological values such as resilience, independence, freedom, and self-development, as well as empathy and love. Emotional freedom requires liberation from our antilife, inhibitory legacy emotions.

A man who neglects to keep track of his finances, for example, may feel so guilty when he thinks about it that he continues to ignore the subject. If he does get himself to examine the numbers, he may then feel so guilty, ashamed, or anxious in response to the bad news that he again stops looking at the financial facts. A woman may feel so bad about slapping her daughter that she cannot discuss it with anyone or figure out how to prevent it in the future. She may even grow angrier with her daughter, blaming her child for “making Mommy feel so bad.”

Feeling guilty, ashamed, or anxious does not make us better people; it makes us less rational and less effective. If we have committed misdeeds in adulthood, our negative legacy emotions can become so painful that we cannot face what we did to stimulate them. Their demoralizing impact ends up impeding our efforts toward personal responsibility and personal growth.

Negative Emotions Impair Our Safety

Guilt, shame, and anxiety can suppress healthy and effective responses when individuals need to face real threats. In clinical practice, it is common to work with men and women who are emotionally inhibited from defending themselves against other people. As a result, they also have difficulty defending their spouses or children. When a teacher, for example, humiliates one of their children, these parents want to stand up for their child, but defending the child seems so much like defending themselves that negative legacy emotions prevent them.

Because prehistoric emotions were stimulated before we can remember and before we understood what was happening, they are not flexible and adaptable to successful adult life. They can utterly fail to alert the individual to actual moral problems or harmful personal behavior. A man who feels ashamed and paralyzed when another adult threatens him physically may not feel at all ashamed of hitting his children. Perhaps he was bullied and humiliated by his own father, so he fears grown men but has learned from his father that children can and should be hit. Another man feels guilty about failing to earn enough money for his family, but he may feel even guiltier about refusing to lend money to a manipulative friend, thus depriving his family of his wages.

A woman reacts with so much anxiety to the outdoors and to meeting people that she cannot leave home, but she feels so unrealistically safe alone in the house that she neglects to lock the doors. Another woman overreacts with violent anger toward her children but remains passive when her husband abuses her.

Learn Positive Ways of Dealing with Guilt and Shame

Even if you believe that other people need to feel guilty or ashamed in order to behave well, you can nonetheless decide for yourself that you do not need these emotions to make you a better person. You can decide to govern your life based on reason and love. In living your own life, you no longer need to remain compliant with inhibitory relics from evolution and childhood. You can decide for yourself that you will become more loving as you become as free as possible from demoralizing emotional restraints.

I have never known a person who was happily taking charge of life and then, out of the blue, committed violence. I have never known anyone who was loving while nonetheless plotting harm to another human. I have never known anyone who felt empathy for another person and then purposely abused the individual.

From the outside, it might seem that some people feel good while abusing other human beings. However, whenever we delve into the minds of perpetrators, their destructive acts are thinly veiled attempts to overcome their own calamitous lack of self-worth. Typically, they have felt beaten down by shame and humiliation, often at the hands of earlier abusers, and are now inflicting their pain on others in the hope of achieving some modicum of power and self-respect.

If you look into your own heart, I believe you will find that at your best as a human being, you are relatively free of painful emotions and instead indeed guiding yourself via reason, ethics, and love. Therefore, regardless of what you think about unspecified other people needing to feel powerful oppressive emo­tions to keep them in line, you certainly do not need them. You have the ability to bring out the best in yourself by throwing off the emotional thrall of our prehistoric past.

Anyone motivated will have nothing to lose by letting go of prehistoric emotions and by choosing instead to live by higher principles such as justice, empathy, and love. If you are a parent, friend, teacher, minister, coach, or healthcare provider, the same is undoubtedly true for those in your care. You will do far more good if you triumph over and transcend disabling negative emotions and find the emotional freedom to love, to be loved, and to enjoy life.


Reprinted with permission from Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions (Prometheus Books, 2014) by Peter R. Breggin, MD.