The Painful Legacy of Guilt and Shame

How many of us can say that we have never experienced guilt and shame? Not many, I imagine. Experiencing some guilt may be necessary for us to develop a conscience and often gives us the possibility to repair, so we have the opportunity to do something, to be proactive in the healing of ourselves and others. Shame, however, often remains hidden, pushed down, and penetrates the very core of our being.

We feel guilty for things we have done and wished we hadn’t and for which we may or may not be able to make reparation. The do’s and don’ts by which we live have been reinforced by religion (Thou shalt not steal…), school rules and enshrined in the legal system.

How do we measure guilt? Does a person with no means of supporting themselves carry around more or less guilt when they steal food in order to survive? Am I more or less guilty than a homeless person if I pick up and pocket a £20 note I find in the street.

When does someone else’s guilt or lack of guilt become our shame? In the therapy room we may observe the weight of shame carried by a client as a response to a guilty secret of a family member. For a father who is in prison for a violent crime, a mother with a drink problem. Somehow their actions can become our shame. We think less of ourselves because we have been given, by the behaviour of the individuals concerned, by ourselves and by society’s judgment, a legacy of shame.

When thinking about the workshop Brian and I are offering, I asked a few people what they felt guilty about and what they felt ashamed of. It seems it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the two, for example, one man said to me that he felt guilty and ashamed for not being employed. Guilty that he could not support his family and ashamed of himself as a person - “there must be something wrong with me that I can’t find work”.

One mother said she felt guilty that she had not enjoyed the first six months of her child’s life, another said she felt ashamed when other people asked her when she was returning to work when she had chosen to be a stay-at-home mum. In the latter case, shame was induced by current societal expectations - had she been living a century ago she would not have experienced shame in this way. So this is about judgement, of others, of ourselves, of society. Is there shame without judgement?

One single twenty-something said she felt ashamed at having done nothing to help a bullied pupil at school and guilty for having stolen sweets from the local shop. In the first case the individual’s inaction, their avoidance of conflict perhaps, their fear of being bullied themselves, are all part of the pathway to their experience of shame.

When reflecting on these examples it seemed that guilt is a response to something we have done, whereas shame is a more pervasive feeling that goes right to centre of how we feel about ourselves, effecting our self-worth. Shame can paralyse us as we retreat from our unease with who we are. Paralysis means no growth or development, it is limiting.

How can we release ourselves from the legacy of guilt and shame? How can we forgive ourselves for stealing or love ourselves when we feel useless as a human being?

Siobhan Tinker

Siobhan is a trainer at the Trust, psychotherapist and supervisor.

The Painful Legacy of Guilt and Shame is a workshop being offered by Brian Graham and Siobhan Tinker, London July 15th. For further information, please contact: or call: 07939-152796

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