Letting Go of Guilt and Shame

double exposure effect of woman suffering from guilt and shame and letting it go

Do you know that shame and guilt aren’t the same feelings? More importantly, shame can actually hamper your recovery process, while guilt can create a new path of healing, especially once you’re able to release it. How might this happen?

Understanding the Differences Between Guilt & Shame

In 2012, professor and researcher Brené Brown, now with more than 20 years success in sobriety, released the book Daring Greatly. Among many messages, she highlighted two important concepts:

  • How being vulnerable is actually a superpower that rewards all areas of your life. “When we shut ourselves off from vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives,” she wrote.
  • The ways shame and guilt differ, and how learning from these states of being gives us courage. “I believe the differences between shame and guilt are critical in informing everything from the way we parent and engage in relationships, to the way we give feedback at work and school.”

The book contains findings from other researchers who also believe that a better understanding of shame and guilt can help individuals learn from mistakes, rise above them, and present their most authentic selves.

What the Research Says About Guilt & Shame

For example, one study defines shame as “an unpleasant emotion implying a self-evaluation of inadequacy to meet the standards of one’s ideal self. Ashamed people may regard themselves as either responsible or non-responsible for a fault, but in any case, when experiencing pure shame, they are not considering responsibility issues.”

Conversely, guilt is identified as an emotion “implying a negative self-evaluation against one’s moral standards, that is, the standards concerning those behaviors, goals, beliefs or traits for which one regards oneself as responsible.”

Brown narrows it down: “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Further, she states, “I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University. In an article for VeryWellMind, she says, “​​When you feel guilty about the wrong thing you did, you can take steps to make up for it and put it behind you. But feeling shame, or being convinced that you are the thing that’s wrong, offers no clear-cut way to ‘come back’ to feeling more positive about yourself.”

Why Do We Go Into Shame Spirals?

You may already be exploring this idea in recovery therapy. Salters-Pedneault points to aspects of our childhood—specifically, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). “People who grow up in abusive environments can easily get the message that they are undeserving, inadequate, and inferior—in other words, that they should feel ashamed.” Additionally, different forms of anger can not only stem from shame as we try to avoid dealing with certain feelings and behavior, but also create more of it as a result of our reaction.

Shame deeply influences our self esteem and feelings of worth. Further, if we’ve harmed someone or acted on maladaptive behavior, we really can’t correct those mistakes if we still feel a sense of shame. This spiral makes it much more challenging to move forward in life—and demonstrates why we find it difficult to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and how interconnected shame and guilt can be.

Let Go of Guild & Shame Though Self-Compassion

This is frequently a challenging concept for many people to embrace, especially if they’re finally acknowledging the effects of ACEs. But self-compassion is a vital first step to forming a healthier view of self.

How do you develop self-compassion? Therapist Rachel Otis suggests 3 steps:

  1. Use positive affirmations. Now, before you roll your eyes, think about how demeaning negative self talk is—for example, Otis suggests that instead of “I’m too old to be struggling with these issues,” try “I’ll never ever be too old (or too much of anything, for that matter) to continue cultivating curiosities about my own behaviors and spaces for growth.”
  2. Return to your body. During the height of addiction, we often try to numb negative feelings and body sensations. Otis recommends actually going more into the body through a process called somatic experiencing to help release stored trauma.
  3. Use movement to support whole-person health. Just as detox releases the physical stranglehold of chemicals, regular exercise reminds you of what it feels like to live well not only in your body, but your mind. Most of us process thoughts and emotions more effectively through or after consistent movement. Prioritizing our health in this way helps reaffirm our self-worth.

Find Your Whole Self at Willingway

Once feelings of shame dissipate, you have the courageous vulnerability to face the things that make you feel guilt. Perhaps these entries from AA’s 12 Steps ring a bell:

  • Make a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.
  • Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • Continue to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admit it.

We have numerous resources to help you heal from within. Learn how we can help.

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