Blog Short #17: The Two Responses to Guilt

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you . My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

Guilt is one of those words that can seem ambiguous depending on how you use it and what you mean by it.

It usually refers to a feeling of regret, and sometimes great regret, for having done something wrong or something that doesn’t align with your values. This is especially true if the thing done causes harm or pain to someone.

Making mistakes, and even sometimes hurting others, is unavoidable. Feeling guilty is a normal response to these situations and signals the need for damage control, but how you go about that depends on how you respond to the guilt itself.

There are two responses to guilt: shame and remorse.

You can feel them both at the same time, but they have different origins and different outcomes. One is a healthy response that ultimately helps you grow and learn, and the other is a self-defeating response that can move you toward destructive behavior.

I’m sure you’ve already figured out that the healthy one is remorse, and the self-defeating one is shame.

Let’s go through the differences. I’ll start with remorse.

Remorse is the recognition of a mistake you’ve made, or some wrong you’ve committed that rubs against your conscience. You feel truly sorry.

In her book The Gift, author Edith Eger says of remorse: “It’s more akin to grief.”

You accept that you’ve committed an action you can’t take back or undo, and you feel sad about it. You do your best to repair or make amends, or if you can’t do that directly, you vow to correct the mistake in any future dealings or actions.

Remorse, like shame, has a strong element of regret, but there’s also acceptance and self-compassion.

With remorse you:

  1. Accept that you’re not perfect and you make mistakes, even big ones sometimes.
  2. Feel empathy for anyone you may have hurt or caused pain.
  3. Focus on making amends or repairing the damage.
  4. Learn from the mistake by changing the course of your future behavior, and making better choices.
  5. Allow the sadness that comes up, but don’t turn it inward and beat yourself up.
  6. Treat yourself with compassion while still feeling regret and grief.


Shame is different. It’s an indictment of your unworthiness.

With shame you:

  1. Believe you’re unworthy and “bad.”
  2. Believe that less than perfect is not enough.
  3. Beat yourself up in reaction to mistakes, relentlessly.
  4. Often hide or withdraw.
  5. Or conversely, blame someone or something else for the mistake.
  6. Don’t allow yourself to make amends or repair, because the shame is overwhelming and it’s all you can see or feel.
  7. Or, you overwhelm the hurt party with your feelings of shame by oversharing how badly you feel.

The tricky thing about shame is that it moves the focus from repairing and empathizing with the injured party to indulging in self-destructive thoughts and feelings (and sometimes behavior). Instead of attending to making reparations, you attend to withdrawing into a pit of self-flagellation.

Without meaning to, the attention is drawn back toward you, and away from the person that’s the victim of your error.

Shame is like depression. It’s isolating. It separates you from yourself. It’s like locking yourself up in solitary confinement and disconnecting from everything and everyone, including you.

Remorse keeps you connected, because it’s based on acceptance of the idea that we all make mistakes, and all have to deal with the outcomes of those mistakes while also learning from them and repairing what we can as we go along.

We’re not bad, but we do bad things sometimes. The silver lining is that we can recover and grow from these experiences.

Here’s what to do when you feel guilty about something.

  • Admit fully to yourself what you did. Own the mistake and don’t blame it on someone or something else.
  • Let yourself feel sad about it. Don’t try and shut off those feelings. Let them run their course.
  • Speak to yourself with the same kind of compassion you would to a friend or loved one who was confessing the same mistake.
  • Once you’ve allowed your emotions to settle a bit, put on your thinking cap and decide what if anything you can do to make amends or repair. If you need help with this, talk to someone who can help you process your emotions and think through the problem.
  • Then act on it. Do what you can.
  • Finally, review what you’ve learned and what you’ll do next time to avoid making the same mistake.

Here’s what not to do.

  • Ruminate on how unworthy you are.
  • Create narratives that absolve you of responsibility such as blaming someone else.
  • Withdraw, or conversely, lash out at someone to avoid the guilt feelings.
  • Let it sit and take no action to make amends or repair.
  • Repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
  • Turn the attention toward your self-defeating feelings and away from empathizing with the person who was harmed. This will make you feel much worse, and just increase your shame.
  • Engage in some sort of self-destructive behavior that will have it’s own negative repercussions.

One last word about guilt.

Most of what I’ve pointed out is dependent upon you actually being responsible for some action that would naturally bring on a feeling of guilt. However, sometimes we feel guilty for actions that don’t belong to us.

In these cases, our guilt is misplaced. We take responsibility for someone else’s actions, or their mistakes, or their feelings. Or we imagine that we’ve done something that hurts someone and in reality, we’re fantasizing that.

If you’re not sure, question your thoughts about why you’re feeling guilty, and question the scenario playing in your head. You can always check it out with the other party. For example, if you think you’ve hurt someone’s feelings by something you said, and you’re feeling guilty about it, make sure that’s the case. Ask.

But, if someone is twisting the facts of the situation to project their stuff onto you, recognize that and don’t feel guilty.

Some of us take on far more guilt than is warranted, and some of us don’t react enough with remorse for things we’ve done. You can always question and get confirmation if need be.

If you’d like to read up more on this subject, I would suggest Daring Greatly by Brené Brown (Chapter 3), and The Gift by Edith Eger (Chapter 5).

That’s all for now! Have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

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