Guilt and shame, we all suffer from it from time to time, but it can have a long-lasting impact that holds us back at every turn when it beds itself deep into our psychology.
So let’s look at a little neuroscience behind guilt and shame and try and unpick what it is really designed to do.
Guilt and shame are similar and often used interchangeably; however, recent neuroscience research suggests that they are processed differently.
They both underpin self-correction but are made up of different brain chemistry based on different beliefs and motivate different reactions.
Guilt arises when we think that we have done damage to something or someone.
Shame arises when we believe that we are damaged somehow (for example, unlovable, unkind, inferior, incompetent.)
Shame and guilt can serve as ethical guides, holding us to our own and our chosen community standards; shame is far more damaging to us over time.
From an evolutionary perspective, humans are social creatures and need interaction to survive. For our ancestor's rejection from the community meant death, and for us, rejection may mean being ostracised and separated from people we love and care about.
Neuropsychology teaches us that guilt and shame have evolved to alert us when we act in ways that could result in rejection from our community or society.
When we do something that goes against our values or “misbehave”, our brain releases stress hormones that motivate us to adjust our unacceptable behaviour. So that we can correct our errors and behave in ways that are socially acceptable in our culture and community.
Our brains then go into predictive mode and start predicting our actions. If that prediction is that our actions or behaviour will produce a response that is socially or culturally unacceptable, this then leads to feelings of guilt or even shame.
The brain searches through all our experiences (personal memory), information about societal norms and even ancestral information.
This, in turn, cause sensations in our body, and we start to feel that warm rush of guilt or shame that comes over us, and we start adding all sorts of meaning to the thoughts we are having, strengthening the feelings of guilt or shame that we are experiencing.
Then the brain starts to balance our body budget in preparation for what needs to happen, and most often or not, in the case of guilt or shame, we move into fight-flight or freeze mode.
Essentially both shame and guilt trigger the fear response. Because guilt is focused on our actions, we have a greater sense of agency in rectifying our mistakes and alleviating our guilt feelings. And providing we see the error in our ways, the emotion or feelings of guilt or shame can naturally dissolve away, leaving us free of the burden of our mistakes.
Most people aren't very good at letting go of guilt, and we are not taught that it's ok to let it go. Our caregivers, partners, friends often bring our past mistakes up, not necessarily by way of meanness. It's just what they do innocently because they, too, don't fully understand what guilt is designed to do.
When we hold onto guilt or shame like fear, it is debilitating. We can spend endless hours feeling guilty for things we have said or done or feeling ashamed of mistakes we make.
I like to look at guilt and shame from two angles, or in other words, from two sides of the same coin.
We experience guilt and shame due to what has been projected onto us by other people, i.e. our parents/caregivers. And their judgement and expectations of us, some of these are intertwined with cultural expectations and societal norms.
The other side of the coin is the guilt and shame we create for ourselves from our past mistakes and the things we feel ashamed of in our lives.
Or things we have said and done to others that we consider hurtful
If we look at all of this through the lens of thought and the meaning, we add we can begin to see the guilt and shame for what it is.
Again, just like fear, it is thought in the moment and the meaning we are giving to it when we shine the light of our consciousness on to it.
One reason people really struggle with guilt and shame is that the ego doesn’t want you to be perceived as a bad person.
People strive to be seen in the best light possible, to be liked to be accepted. To be perceived as a good person, when we make a mistake or when someone else judges us, and we begin to experience guilt, we have a tough time accepting that there may be a dark side.
So what happens is we overcompensate this by holding on to the guilt and feeling bad and try to fix that guilt by doing things that prove we are good people.
Nobody wants to be a bad person.
But the thing is, we are human, and despite our best efforts to live a life free of mistakes, we all have at times ugly thoughts and ugly behaviours. And we will always, at some point, do something that falls below the standards we set for ourselves or the standards others expect us to live up to. This means that we cannot escape life without ever experiencing guilt and shame.
So the only choices we have are to:
One - to learn from mistakes and do our best to avoid making them again and accept that we are imperfect. And admit to ourselves that "yeah, I am selfish, or harsh or even nasty" and then give ourselves the gift of compassion, forgive ourselves, and then let it go. And learn from it!
Two - if it’s guilt/shame we are carrying that has been projected onto us, look for the evidence to see if this is true. And if it’s not, then stop adding meaning to it and start setting boundaries with those people who are in judgment of you and what you do.
Guilt from past mistakes aren’t meant to be carried our entire life, it’s an evolutionary self-correction response, and its purpose is to enable us to self-correct and move forward, having learned from past mistakes.
If you continue to carry guilt and shame throughout your life, then you are simply living in a box of fear. It’s exhausting, drains your energy and shrinks your life.
So let go of the guilt and love yourself enough to forgive yourself and move on.
Doing this will strengthen your resilience, and you will be less likely to succumb to long term feelings of guilt.
And remember, you cannot change the past or the future you can only create the moment you are in right now, and each time you choose guilt over self-compassion, you are creating more guilt and more fear in life and teaching those around you that guilt is a good thing!
If you would like help to let go of your guilt or shame, you can reach out to me here to book a free discovery session or come and join us over in one of our Facebook groups, Avril Gill Coaching or Dissolve Your Anxiety, or follow me in IG for guidance and support.