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Shame and Guilt


I recently stumbled on an article discussing the different between shame and guilt. Before diving in, if you’re interested in the "shame spiral" or "shame phenomenon," look no farther than Brene Brown’s research on shame, courage and vulnerability.


We are a shame centered society. Before I touch on that, know that the message shame sends is that WE ARE BAD. The message guilt sends (which is a much more relatable emotion; and equally more manageable) is: WHAT I DID WAS BAD; or my BEHAVIOR was “bad.” As a society of perfectionists and critics we tend to over examine wrongful behaviors, take part in cancel culture, or engage in what is called morbid reflection.


Morbid reflection (a term coined in the AA community) essentially means dwelling on something from the past in a negative self-reflective shame-filled way. This term is often used to define when people in recovery dwell on what they did while using drugs and alcohol. We could apply this same logic to anger outbursts, dishonesty, conflict and confrontation, ignoring, breaking someone’s heart, having our heart broken – the list goes on and on. Pick your poison -- we all have dwelled in the dark, I'm sure.


As a society, we heavily rely on shame to keep people stuck, while others create momentum forward. Shame prevents us from evolving and growing, and often times allows those in the “power position” to rule the self-worth and confidence of others. We do not feel we are worthy of making better decisions, leaving unhealthy relationships or making big life changes (like a new career) because we feel shame for past actions, or lack of action. So we often times remain stuck in careers we don't enjoy, relationships that feel wrong or habits of self-sabotage (continuing "being bad").


So, how do we move out of shame? Moving out of shame is a purposeful effort of embracing shadow qualities. In one interpretation, Psychologist, Carl Jung, defines the shadow self as the parts of ourselves that may be perceived as “negative.” This might be traits of jealousy, anger, manipulation or narcissism. Let’s get one thing out of the way: we ALL have shadow qualities. If you think you don’t, you’re kidding yourself.

Step one is acceptance.

Accept that you will do some wrong "stuff" in your life and you will do things you’re not proud of (especially is drugs and alcohol are involved). This is the cross we bare in being human. We are imperfect and make wrong decisions all the time. Be at our core we are not darkness, we are trying our best, most of the time.


Step 2, make a choice.

After acceptance comes choice. You can look at the “bad thing,” and engage in morbid reflection with the option to stay stuck, and continue the behaviors OR beat yourself up and not continue behaviors (but also not cutting yourself a break). I personally don't love either of those options, so lets look at a third option.


Step 3 - Restructuring and Asking WHY!

This is where we want to engage in cognitive restructuring – we want to move out of “I’m a bad person” because I did X, Y and Z and move into "I did a bag thing, and have the opportunity to grow and evolve from it, forgive myself, and give my power back to myself. This is not letting yourself off the hook; it’s engaging in the process of living life in both our dark and light qualities; asking ourselves WHY we engaged in said behaviors and hoping to gather insight, rather than repeat the cycle.

Step 4 - Let Go and LIVE!

When people come to therapy, I make something very clear – You might find this shocking but my go to line is, "I cannot teach you how to be happy." Did you fall out of your chair? Have you sat in a therapist office and uttered this words? Has a therapist said these very words to you?


Well, let me tell WHY I start with this statement. I choose not to live in illusion or present illusion to others.

Life isn't happy, life is hard.

But, I can assure you, I can help you find more meaning in you life, navigate painful and frightening experiences, create space for emotion healing, teach you to regulate emotions and incorporate joy in your life.


What we have to do first, however, is release shame from your spirit and translate into the more manageable emotion of guilt. You do not need to be punished for past mistakes. You do not need to hold yourself hostage. And you do not deserve to stay stuck because of your past. Invite the moment into your life, and be better BECAUSE of it. You are brave. You are not bad. You are beautiful.

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