If there is one thing that I could pick that causes so many problems for people, even among Christians, it would be guilt and shame.
So many people today are struggling with guilt and shame often from things that happened years ago. I hope after you read this article that you’ll have a better understanding of guilt and shame, how guilt and shame cause problems, the different types of guilt and shame, and finally what you can do to heal from guilt and shame.
The first thing we must do is define guilt and shame in order to distinguish the difference between the two. Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably but they are two different things.
How is guilt and shame defined?
According to dictionary.com,
Guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, or wrong, whether real or imagined.
Shame is the painful feeling arising from consciousness of something dishonorable or improper, done by oneself or another.
From these definitions we can see that guilt arises from an awareness of our actions and behaviors that we did something wrong. Shame stems from our inner self and how we view our behaviors in accordance to ourselves and others. In other words, guilt focuses on the behavior while shame says that there is something wrong with me and focuses on our inner self.
Furthermore, according to Stanford Psychology, “Shame is associated with the fear of exposing one’s defective (real or imagined) self to others. Guilt is the fear of not living up to one’s own standards.”
As Christians, guilt is very similar to the word conviction which is a word we often use in reference to sin. Guilt serves an important purpose in our lives as Christians because its God’s way of reminding us of things we do that is hurtful to us and others. Guilt is also useful for us in reminding us when we make mistakes in accordance to other standards (ex: Federal and state laws) and a healthy sign that we are generally aware of how our actions affect others.
However, guilt and shame can also be damaging to ourselves.
The problems with guilt and shame?
There are two main ways where guilt can actually harm us.
1. Feeling excessively guilty.
We all sin and make mistakes, thats a fact. However, a person who constantly feels guilt can be a warning sign for someone with depression, low self-esteem, an underlying mental condition, and even addiction.
A very common example of someone who feels excessively guilty is someone who dwells on regret. I believe that my parents often still hold feelings of guilt over their divorce which happened years ago. Letting go of the guilt they feel has been hard for them because they’ve seen how its affected us.
You may find that you are experiencing excessive guilt if your current situation has triggers that remind you of your past mistakes.
2. Unfounded guilt.
Unfounded guilt is where you feel guilty but it has no foundation or basis of fact. For example, if you’re a parent who divorced it might be reasonable for you to attribute problems that your children experienced as a result of your divorce.
In reality, the divorce may only be a partial factor, if any, based on cross-sectional studies of divorced children and their outcomes.
However, since these associations are made based on partial, incomplete, or false truths, the guilt in a way, is artificially made by you which will continue to hurt you as long as you let it exist.
Shame can be even more harmful than guilt because like I mentioned before, shame focuses on the inner self, not necessarily on the behavior although that can be the starting point.
The problem with shame is that it attacks your internal self with lies. You can probably imagine a few examples where you made a mistake, were hurt by others, or hurt someone else and felt shame. Shame often occurs after guilt because of the intermediary conclusions we make after we become aware of our guilt.
For example, if you missed an important deadline because you were partying the night before. A healthy form of guilt would say, “I feel bad that I missed this deadline and that I wasn’t prepared to get up the next day.” Shame would say, “I’m so stupid, why do I have to be so dumb, what’s wrong with me?”
Now that we’ve looked at the problems with guilt and shame, lets look at the different types.
There are five types of guilt.
1. Guilt for something you did.
2. Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to.
3. Guilt for something you think you did.
4. Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help out.
5. Guilt that your doing better than someone else.
I want to briefly mention that there are cases where a person may be incapable of feeling guilt such as those who have narcissistic personality disorder or a separation disorder.
There are two different types of toxic shame.
1. Shame for who you are.
2. Shame for what you have done.
Both types of shame are pretty self-explanatory but its important to understand just how damaging shame can be. Carl Jung says, “Shame is a soul eating emotion. Simply, shame feeds on itself and needs negativity and fear to survive.”
How can you begin to heal from excessive and/or unfounded guilt and toxic shame?
1. Recognize your inherent value in Christ.
One of my favorite things to do when I’m feeling down is to reflect and meditate on scriptures that affirm who I am in Christ. A great way to do this is to check out a Father’s love letter which compiles a bunch of scriptures into a love letter to you.
If you never recognize your inherent value in Christ, it will be especially difficult for you to heal from toxic shame. Why?
Its much easier to say, “I’m so stupid or I’m so dumb” when you feel and think as though you have no value to yourself, others, and in Christ. However, if you understand and recognize how incredibly special and valuable you are because Christ bought you at a price, you will be much more likely to distinguish and prevent feelings of toxic shame when they arise.
2. Write down and forgive yourself for all of the things in your past that make you feel guilty or shameful.
I recently wrote in this article about the importance of having a Christ-like compassion towards yourself because it helps build self-esteem. Forgiving yourself is an important aspect of this Christ-like compassion and will help you start to release the feelings of guilt and shame you may be experiencing because of your past.
3. Seek therapy from a Christian therapist ideally.
Sometimes the chains of guilt and shame can be so strong that you need help to break free from them. Remember, there is no shame in seeking help from others. God calls us the body of Christ and we are to rely on each other during tough times.
A Christian therapist may be beneficial for you because they will not only be trained in modern psychological techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy but also will be founded in Christian principles. Many times, just being able to talk freely with someone will allow you to identify and release all of the pent up feelings of guilt and shame that you’ve been carrying for so long.
I hope this article has helped you. I experienced a lot of guilt and shame in my life from my biological mom who gave me up for adoption. I always felt as though I was in some way defective (shame) and held myself to high internal standards which only made me feel more guilt when I failed to meet them. Some of the steps I’ve shared with you above though have helped me tremendously and I hope you will also find them useful in your own life.
What experiences in your life have made you feel the most guilt or shame? Were they unfounded?