Guilt and Shame

Guilt can be crippling. Not that it should be, but sometimes it just is.  Resolving guilt issues may result in the realization that the guilt was inappropriate, lasted too long, or simply wasn’t warranted.  Through a judicious application of narrative therapy and an exploration of any relevant family of origin or temperamental issues, most troublesome guilt can be brought down to a manageable level or even eliminated entirely.  Shame is a curse on happiness that can produce the strangest of results: someone who generally feels good about him/herself is forced into hiding, cannot participate in social activities, retreats from opportunities to shine and underperforms even with high skill levels.  Why is shame such a devastating bane, and where does it come from?  These important questions must be carefully and thoroughly explored, in order for shame to be dealt with in an effective and lasting way.

Who is to blame?

Guilt, shame, and self-blame are recognized as the defining features of complex PTSD stemming from interpersonal trauma. Victimization—being rendered powerless and stripped of one’s dignity—is profoundly humiliating. Victims frequently share the belief that people are entirely responsible for their own fates and circumstances, and they therefore blame themselves for their own victimization. 

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Shame destroys lives

[...] complex trauma can include overt or implicit messages of blame and shame from the actual perpetrators that, over time, erode self-esteem (van der Kolk, 2003). It also has been suggested that self-blame provides an element of perceived control over otherwise random acts of violence. It may be less threatening for a child to blame him- or herself, for example, than to accept that an attachment figure, on whom they are completely dependent, is unreliable or dangerous (Winnicott, 1965). Another reason for the centrality of shame in trauma is its prominence in many disorders that are comorbid with complex PTSD. Thus, shame has been called a transdiagnostic emotion. Shame is intrinsic to self-critical depressions, for example, as well as lingering depression at loss (Pascual-Leone & Greenberg, 2007). Accordingly, a history of rejection by attachment figures results in a core sense of self as defective and, therefore, vulnerable to abandonment. Adult experiences of actual loss or rejection later seem to confirm this shame-based sense of self. Similar processes are thought to be involved in particular types of personality pathology. Borderline and narcissistic rage, for example, is considered a defense against core feelings of shame, and avoidance of interpersonal contact, which is characteristic of avoidant personality, protects against morbid fear of rejection (projected shame-based sense of self). Likewise, social and performance anxiety can be rooted in a fear that others will see one’s essential defectiveness. Sexual victimization is particularly stigmatizing. Victims of child sexual abuse not only are disgusted by perpetrators but are disgusted with themselves, feel contaminated, or “dirty.” Behaviors such as substance abuse and self-injury can function to numb these feelings of shame, and engaging in these behaviors, in turn, can generate additional shame.–Paivio, S. C., & Pascual-Leone, A. (2010). Emotion-focused therapy for trauma treatment model. American Psychological Association.