The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 158: Guilt And Shame

If we’ve hurt someone then I think it’s probably healthy to feel bad about it, to wish that we’d behaved differently and to want to make amends.
But what isn’t healthy is continually beating yourself up over it or to think of yourself as a bad person because of what happened. Feeling bad because you hurt someone is guilt. But feeling as if you’re a bad person is shame, and they’re a bit different.
Guilt you can do something with, you can learn from it. You can apologise, make amends and move on. But shame? There’s not really anywhere to go with that, and I think it’s important that we recognise that good people can do bad things, just like bad people can do good things.
Hitler was a vegetarian, who loved his dogs but it doesn’t offset what he did, it doesn’t make him a good person. The same process should work the opposite way around, does a good person become a bad person just because they cheated on their partner? Feeling guilty shouldn’t affect our self esteem, but it can do. Whereas feeling shameful, that ONLY harms our self-esteem.
If you think of yourself as a good person, but you do a bad thing, it causes you to be disappointed in yourself, because it goes against what you believe to be your true self. But if your self-esteem is low then you might well think of yourself as a bad person in the first place and so doing a bad thing makes you further ashamed of WHO you are, not just what you did, because it confirms what you already knew about yourself, that you were a piece of crap pretending be a nice person and yet again you’ve been caught out.
This belief about self can easily prevent you from being able to put things right, because you might feel that you don’t deserve to feel anything other than ashamed, which can soon turn into self destructive and self sabotaging behaviour and it’s really worth acknowledging.
Guilt and shame need dealing with in slightly different ways, when we feel guilty we need to learn that it’s OK to make mistakes, when we feel ashamed we need to learn that it’s OK to be who we are. No matter what forgiveness of self is the first step, and a lot of my clients don’t like the idea of forgiving themselves for their mistakes, it’s as if they’re letting themselves off the hook, but what’s the alternative to self forgiveness, it’s self judgement and that’s what lowers their self esteem in the first place and drives them to therapy because that judgement towards themselves creates even more shame and the more shame someone feels about their past, the more their self-esteem is lowered even further and the less likely it is they feel motivated to change.
So yes, it IS OK to let yourself off the hook, because you’ve probably suffered enough, you’ve paid your price. Just because you can’t change the past doesn’t mean you can’t change the future.
It was my wedding anniversary last week my wife and I have been married for 15 years and there’s the old joke isn’t there “I’d get less for murder!”
Well, yes. That’s probably true, someone sentenced to life will almost always be eligible for parole at some point after 15 years. So do we really deserve to be beating ourselves up for nicking a packet of panini football stickers from the newsagent when we were 14?
What’s worth bearing in mind is that guilt comes from a good place. Guilt can only exist in places that you care. Otherwise there’d be a sense of indifference to what you did, you wouldn’t care about any hurt you caused someone. There’s a big difference between judging yourself for the mistake that you made and acknowledging the action as a mistake and judging the behaviour. By recognising that you’re a good person but just made a mistake there can be a better understanding as to why what happened happened.
That way when say to yourself “What was I thinking?” you can come up with a decent answer. Because the answer is so often, “I did what I thought felt right at the time.”
It’s only with hindsight that you can see that there might be better ways of dealing with it, providing of course that you actually have made a mistake and hurt someone, that is. Sometimes people feel guilty when they’ve actually done nothing wrong, they’re full of anxiety about being judged by others that they’re constantly on the look out for reasons why other people might not like or respect them. Which makes them feel guilty over the simplest and most ridiculous things.
Be careful that you don’t fall for that because it’s not unusual for people to WANT their friends to feel guilty. If someone can make you feel bad about yourself, it prevents THEM from feeling guilty over judging you or taking advantage of you. It’s in their interests that you feel guilty. That way they can ask you to help them cut down a stack of trees in the back garden or babysit or buy their kids expensive birthday presents.
So maybe you have nothing to feel guilty about, but chances are that you do. You can’t go through life never hurting another person, we’ve all hurt someone. I’ve hurt plenty of people and I probably will again at some point. That’s life.
But if we torment ourselves over it and allow it to lower our self-esteem then we can’t learn from it. Forgiving yourself doesn’t let go of any responsibility, we still need to OWN what we did. But treating yourself fairly despite being responsible for someone else’s pain means that we can deal with it with more clarity, we can see the bigger picture and see that maybe you did nothing wrong at all. Or, most likely, it helps you to make amends in some way.
Look at it this way. Would you take away your mistakes if you had a choice? Think about it. Imagine a big red button in front of you that, if you push it, it removes from your life every bad decision, every mistake, every time that you hurt someone. It deletes it from history, from memory, it deletes it from existence.
Would you push it? Yes?
OK. Well imagine that this button does something else. Instead of removing mistakes, what it does is take away every lesson learned from those experiences, it takes away all the wisdom gained from living a life with mistakes in it, so that you can trundle along with the rest of your life ready to make those same mistakes again, because you learned nothing.
Would you take away the lessons learned from your past? No.
But you can’t have both. You can’t have the lessons without the experiences. What moves us forward is that we can be OK with ourselves for making those mistakes, maybe with a better understanding of where they’ve come from.