Guilt and shame are human emotions which develop in early life. Research suggests that guilt begins to develop around the ages of three to six, while shame occurs much earlier – from fifteen months to age three. Guilt is a more mature reaction to mistakes than shame; and while guilt can be used to motivate change, it can also become unhealthy when unresolved or disproportionate.
Guilt involves self-blame or sense of responsibility for a regretted thought or action. True guilt is what is felt when facts justify the level of responsibility and regret. Perceived guilt is what is felt when responsibility is accepted for something outside of personal control or when the consequences are misinterpreted. Unhealthy guilt can occur when there are unreasonably high standards that result in guilt when unmet.
Guilt can be a helpful emotion when it is justified. It motives to learn from mistakes and make changes. The initial conscience pang when something is in conflict with values prompts a realization of a mistake and a desire to make changes. Healthy people use self-chastisement to steer themselves back on course.
Shame is hardly ever a helpful or motivating emotion and creates a sense of worthlessness or inadequacy. Internalized shame can also lead to other unconstructive actions including: attacking or striking out at others in an attempt to feel better; seeking power and perfection; blaming others for personal faults; being self-sacrificing and attempting to please everyone; and withdraw to numb against the feelings of guilt and shame. Shame is fear based and drives to hide or protect from scrutiny.
When the burden of extreme guilt or shame is carried, there is low self-esteem. The sense of low self-worth creates issues that compromise mental health and can become destructive, debilitating emotions. They can create serious negative consequences such as: alcoholism, drug abuse, and other types of self-destructive behavior; depression, unfulfilled lives, and relationship problems. By differentiating between the action and the actor, we can prevent shame and its negative connotations, while still encouraging a healthy sense of right, wrong, and guilt when necessary.
Steps to accept mistakes without unhealthy guilt or shame:
1. Admit and accept wrong. It is okay to make mistakes, as long as one benefits from the experience.
2. Learn the lesson. Offer thoughtful consideration of underlying motivations that led to mistaken action.
3. Forgive yourself. Self-forgiveness is not abdicating responsibility. It is seeing mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than personal failure.
4. Make amends if possible. A sincere, well-executed apology has the potential to help heal wounds; both for the person who feels guilty as well as for those who were wronged. However, the injured person may not accept even a sincere apology. This is beyond personal control but the action of offering amends is important.
5. Change your behavior so you don’t make the same mistake again.
6. Lose the guilt and move forward with life. This step is the natural conclusion if the previous five steps are taken.
When we feel guilt, it’s about something we did. When we feel shame, it’s about who we are. When we feel guilty we need to learn that it’s OK to make mistakes. When we feel shame we need to learn that it’s OK to be who we are!