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How to overcome shame and guilt

Folks share things with me as their therapist that they are too embarrassed to ask about or discuss with anyone else in their world. It’s an honor to be confided in and it’s fun when I get to practice what counselors call “normalizing.”

Deep down, misfits like me worry that there must be something terribly wrong with us that we think and feel as we do. We get caught in the trap of judging our own internal experiences. I get to share with folks that their thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams, opinions, preferences, intuition, fantasies, and judgments are never “bad.” They are naturally occurring. Only in how we act upon such things can our behavior be construed as potentially immoral or unhealthy.

We who are kind and patient with others are too often highly self-critical and rejecting of ourselves.

I met with an amazing woman recently who confessed she was deeply ashamed for something she had dreamt. She asked, “What does it say about me that I would ever even imagine such a thing?” My response caught her off guard, “It only says that you’re human.”

See, “Normalizing” is a clinical term meaning, “Chill out. Everyone does that.”

I explained that when she dreams, her subconscious and unconscious minds are trying to work something out that she could not or would not resolve during her waking hours. I see this as beautiful: With or without our cooperation, our bodies, minds, and spirits are always seeking to heal.

There’s an old expression that, “Things will look better in the morning.” Very often this is true because during REM sleep, our minds have devoted some energy into putting things into a proper perspective and helping us to adjust.

The next piece of “normalizing” was asking my client to consider what her judgment would be if it were a friend describing a similar dream. Without hesitation she replied, “I’d tell them it was just a dream and that they don’t need to feel bad about it.”

Right. Now, whenever you’re stuck, you can ask yourself, “How would I see this if it were happening with a friend?” Then you know what’s true and what to do about it.

The problem for folks like me is that we have default settings for feeling bad because somewhere along the line, we were made to feel that we are bad.

There are exactly two ways in which this occurs: guilt & shame. Guilt is, “I did bad” and shame is, “I am bad.”

Guilt comes in two forms: rational and irrational. Rational guilt is useful. That’s your conscience telling you that you screwed up and need to fix it. Irrational guilt is when you’ve done nothing wrong, but you feel responsible for things being a mess. Again, how would you see it if it were a friend in your shoes? Go with that.

Shame is rarely warranted. There are “bad people” in the world (sociopaths, psychopaths, Donald Trump…), but they don’t ever spend time worrying about whether they are one and what they would need to do about it.

Doing bad things does not make one a bad person. When we’re preoccupied with condemning ourselves for our past, we’re not becoming a better person in the present.

Letting go of the past is no small task. We know to learn from it but what’s missing for many of us is the choice to forgive ourselves for it. Maya Angelou left us some beautiful guidance on this one, “I did then what I knew to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

If you know how to do something for someone else then you know how to do it for you. Forgiveness requires accountability, communication, expression of emotion, achieving clarity and resolution not to repeat that which was hurtful. Do that for you and stop holding yourself back.

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