Guilt & Appropriate Shame

Guilt: the state of having done something that is morally wrong and/or that caused harm

Shame: a concept; the belief coming from within yourself that you are guilty, defective, or unworthy

 

This page is directed at those who have caused sexual trauma to a sibling. It is for those who are carrying both guilt and shame; a crushing combination. There are several ways to view shame when one also carries guilt. 

 

A current, popular view is that shame is never appropriate or productive. In this view, it is healthy to feel guilty for what you have done wrong, but not to feel shame about who you are. Brene Brown’s work follows this approach.

 

Other researchers maintain that both guilt and shame are painful but natural emotions that can be dealt with in either productive or unhealthy ways.

 

Another view is that shame is a healthy reaction to guilt. Feeling shame is a sign you have empathy for those you have hurt, that you have a moral compass. It shows that you recognize the connection between what you do and who you are. In his book Shame and Grace, Lewis Smedes gives an example of this view. He tells of hearing the confession of a man who was continuing to amass wealth through cheating and fraud at work: “This man’s shame, I thought, is the only healthy thing left in him.” Although shame may make you feel like a bad person, it is a sure sign that you are not entirely a bad person, and that you want to be a good person.

 

A related view is common in historical and traditional societies as well as some modern Eastern cultures. In this view, shame is a normal, valuable emotion. It helps contain personal behavior so that a society or family can thrive. It still hurts, but the pain serves a worthwhile purpose.

 

However shame is viewed, it is reasonable to assume that most people who feel guilty will also feel shame.

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Shame and guilt are complicated.

You may carry both appropriate shame and undeserved shame. If you carry trauma from what others have done to you, sexually, emotionally or physically, you will have to untangle that as well.

 

Your shame may be closely guarding your guilt. Your shame may have morphed into anger, blaming others, or denial. You may have compartmentalized your guilt, keeping the memory hidden and locked while shame carries the key. Your shame may have led you to social isolation, numbness, or addiction.

Your shame may cause you to avoid or be afraid of people who want to help you. In short, your shame may be getting in the way of processing your guilt. Shame keeps you in shame. If you feel ashamed, you want to hide yourself and what you have done. But the way to escape the shame is to admit what you did, expose it to the light. Still, the fear of how others will treat you, of humiliation if others find out, is real.

 

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A critical step toward freeing yourself from this kind of shame is to deal with your guilt. There's no set formula, no money-back guarantee for resolving your guilt and shame. The following ideas may offer some guidance.

  • Face what you did wrong. This is far more difficult than most people realize. Self-denial, dissociation, compartmentalization are all common and powerful human reactions to guilt. You may have to start small, facing a small part of what you are sure you did.

 

  • Say what you have done. You can start by saying it out loud to yourself. If talking is too difficult, you can also try typing.

  • SiblingsToo offers a place to anonymously share your story in writing. Your words will be shared with researchers, and researchers only, to help them understand and prevent sibling sexual abuse in the future.  Your identity and IP address are not collected.

  • Sharing your story with others is probably the last thing you want to do, and the scariest thing you can imagine. But the act of telling what you have done will actually lessen your shame. A good place to start is: Whatsok.org (for teens and young adults) or Stopitnow.org (888-PREVENT) Both are confidential, nonjudgmental, and will help you take the next positive steps for your life.  They have helped many others who have done things they wish they hadn't.

 

  • Take responsibility. It is a difficult and scary thing to do and you may need support as you go through the process. You may experience humiliation. But it’s also possible you will find more support than you expect. Taking responsibility has the potential to be a significant step toward healing the person you harmed and to aid in your own healing.

 

  • Eventually you may get to a place where you can use the things you have learned, the road you have traveled, toward helping prevent others from making the same mistakes or helping them stop their own harmful behavior.

 

The journey of healing from guilt-based shame should lead toward humility. Humility means viewing yourself honestly and realistically. Humility is actually the opposite of humiliation. It includes being aware of your flaws and weaknesses, guilt and mistakes--and also being aware of your strengths, virtues, and the positive things you have done and want to do.

 

Additional Resources

Robert Weiss, LCSW, CAS Oxbow Academy Teen Sexual Behavior Program: Healing the Shame-Based Self in Sexual Behavior Recovery

Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2018). Reconsidering the Differences Between Shame and Guilt. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 14(3), 710-733.

Anne Kammerer, Scientific American: The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame

Kristan Torres, Hope Christian Counseling: Guilt and Shame in the Psalms

Joseph Burgo, PhD: Building Self-Esteem: How Learning from Shame Helps Us to Grow

Divine, interpersonal and self-forgiveness: Independently related to depressive symptoms?

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

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