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.


| December 2014



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.

Photo by Fotolia/ivanikova

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.