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How to Help Clients with Crippling Shame and Guilt

5 tips to free clients from these most awful of emotions

Ultimately, we can all benefit from small doses of guilt and shame. But to be shackled by these feelings is another thing entirely.

“Shame is a soul eating emotion.”

– Carl Gustav Jung

Guilty as charged!

But what If you are both the plaintiff and the accused?

Feeling chronically guilty hurts. To neatly round off our legalistic metaphor, the pain of guilt also serves as its own punishment.

The terms guilt and shame are often used interchangeably. But these feelings, though they commonly overlap, are distinct.

Research has even found that these differing but related emotions are processed in different parts of the brain.1 So what is the distinction?

Well, in a nutshell:

  • “Did I upset that person?” = guilt
  • “Why am I such a terrible person?” = shame

Specific versus general

Guilt tends to be specific. We feel bad when we feel we’ve done some wrong to another person. People prone to guilt tend to be more attuned to other people’s emotions and more empathetic.2

So the flip side of empathy may be a greater proneness to guilt.

Empathy scores in young people have apparently plummeted in recent years,3 so perhaps we’ll see less people prone to guilt (and sadly empathy) in future years.

Shame, on the other hand, is more of a general, pervasive sense of just being a ‘bad person’. So shame isn’t necessarily linked to any particular perceived wrongdoing. It’s more just a sense of one’s core identity being inferior or bad. But there’s something a little strange about shame.

Shame, unlike proneness to guilt, has an inverse relationship to empathy.4 Perhaps this is because unlike guilt, which tends to focus on a sense of having done wrong to others, shame is more of a self-focused emotion.

To assume you must be the worst is, in a strange way, as hubristic as assuming you must be the best.

I suspect that if guilty feelings build up to an extreme pitch the sufferer may tip over into a general sense of shame as they depress to the point they can’t really extend so much concern to others.

Now, as far as I know, my cats don’t feel guilt, shame, or even mild embarrassment. These feelings seem to be uniquely human. So why would we have developed the capacity to feel such things?

Self-development versus manipulation

We are social creatures so we do, and must, exist in networks.

Feeling regret at having behaved selfishly or thoughtlessly or having transgressed some tribal taboo can help us retain security within the group by complying with its norms.

What better way to help people ‘do the right thing’ than to have them punishing themselves if they feel they have done the ‘wrong thing’?

Of course, ‘the right thing’ may actually turn out to be the wrong thing when we question the assumptions of the group or society. Still, we can see how a proneness to guilt can help people subsist within groups.

But what about shame?

A world without shame

Calling someone ‘shameless’ is, or at least used to be, an insult. And it’s not hard to understand why: if there’s no risk of a sense of shame darkening your door then you are free to be as terrible as you like. An entirely shame-free life would be one of arrogance, narcissism, and conceit.

As with most things, we need a balance. Just as the sculpture must experience small adjustments from the chisel in order to assume its final shape, we need some aspects of shame to shape us if we are to develop and mature.

Just as the sculpture must experience small adjustments from the chisel in order to assume its final shape, we need some aspects of shame to shape us if we are to develop and mature. Click to Tweet

So to feel shame for a while, to a certain degree, can help us develop. If I have become unfeeling and callous, for example, and I manage to see myself objectively, then a smidgeon of shame can hopefully be the catalyst for self-improvement.

Feeling continually ashamed, however, has no place within a psychologically rounded and developed human being. And in fact, unless we help ourselves and others move beyond the stages of chronic guilt and shame (while retaining empathy, of course), we are no better than marionettes on strings, waiting to be pulled around by other people.

To be decent people, we need to learn to do right because it is right, not just because we fear shame, embarrassment, or guilt. In fact, doing the right thing may not always even look like the right thing to others.

A moving target for guilt trippers

Institutions and individuals long ago learned that people can be manipulated through shame and guilt. ‘Guilt tripping‘ is nothing new.5

What’s more, some people are made to feel guilty through association. Guilt is used abstractedly to manipulate those belonging to certain groups or families based on an idea of collective or historical guilt. This kind of manipulation is used against individuals who had no personal culpability in past wrongdoings.6

It can be hard to see through this kind of manipulation, but it is necessary. We don’t need to take blame or credit for what our ancestors did, or even our parents. We have personal agency, and we need to use it. Although it can certainly be useful to gain an understanding of historical contexts.

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Okay, but what to do for the client for whom guilt or shame is a problem?

Tip one: Distinguish between the two emotions

Does your client feel ashamed of who they are, where they come from, or some other part of their identity? Or are they simply chronically guilty about possible wrongdoings to others?

Shame and chronic guilt may present together, but often they don’t. If your client frequently talks in self-referential ways, using more personal pronouns (I, me, myself), it may be that they are ashamed of themselves rather than focused on how others may have suffered at their hand.

If your client is globalizing specifics into generalities – that is, taking guilt (“I should have been nicer to him that day…”) and generalizing it to sum up their whole identity (“… therefore I am a terrible person!”), you need to teach them to stop globalizing negatives so that guilty thoughts don’t build up into a general sense of shame.

But if their focus is more interrelational and they spend a lot of time talking about others and how they have “let people down” or done others wrong, but don’t seem to have low self-esteem, you are dealing with guilt.

As with all client work, we need to get specific.

Tip two: Get to the detail and work with it

What exactly do they feel ashamed of or guilty about?

One client, Joan, told me she had been bullied at school because of the poverty of her home life. Other girls called her “dirty” and made her shower in her clothes. She carried with her, even into her successful adult life, a sense of shame about who she “really” was.

I helped her de-condition memories like this in order to undo the emotional conditioning that was maintaining this sense of shame. While she relaxed in trance I told her stories such as the Native American version of Cinderella, sometimes called The Rough-Face Girl or The Algonquin Cinderella.7 Because shame is a general sense of inadequacy, we can use storytelling therapy to great effect, as it’s especially good at dealing with broad psychological patterns.

So find out what is behind the shame. What are your client’s assumptions? That they are evil? Stupid? Ugly? That they come from some tainted history or family?

Or, if guilt about treatment of others is the issue, what exactly does your client feel guilty about?

But of course, we need to do more than simply gather information.

Tip three: Reframe hidden assumptions

Many of our assumptions remain hidden from us. I assume I will be alive tomorrow, and all my behaviour is predicated on this assumption even though I rarely think about it consciously. If a person’s assumption is that they are ‘defective’ or ‘damaged’, for example, then we can set about gently and subtly reframing these assumptions.

For example, one hidden assumption of many guilty people is that they must continue to punish themselves by feeling guilty forever. That the guilt doesn’t have a ‘shelf life’, so to speak.

Joan had never forgiven herself, and her psychological self-flagellation was now threatening her marriage with a man who still loved her deeply.

“Why can’t you forgive yourself?”

“What did you do that was so terrible?” I asked Joan. “What was it that you find so hard, even now, to forgive yourself for?”

What she said next took me off guard. “I stabbed my husband! And all these years I’ve felt this overwhelming guilt.”

Joan had been a model wife since the “stabbing incident”, and her husband loved and appreciated her despite the squabble 28 years earlier that had ended up with him in hospital, knitting needle in arm – not too badly injured, but injured nonetheless. He had all but forgotten about it and wanted her to move on. But she just couldn’t seem to.

I asked her which part of her was seeking forgiveness and, if she were to forgive herself, which part would be doing the forgiving. She’d never thought about that before. She said the part that would do the forgiving was the “calm, adult, and wise part”. So I said, “Okay, in this session I mainly want to talk to that part so that the other part can begin to be more sensible.”

First off, we can look at intentions.

“What did you mean to do?”

I asked Joan what her intentions had been when it happened. Did she mean to injure her husband, or was she just not thinking? None of us can foresee the consequences of our actions all the time. Some people can even feel guilty about things they did with the very best of intentions.

So ask your client about what they feel guilty about. What were their intentions,and could they really have been expected to foresee all the consequences?

Next I asked something which, looking back, really started Joan on the road to recovery from chronic guilt.

“Are you ready for parole?”

I think framing Joan’s self-punishment in this way is what made all the difference in helping her finally begin to forgive herself. Late in the session I looked at her squarely and asked:

“Joan, realistically, how long would you have been imprisoned for had you been convicted for attacking your husband 28 years ago? What kind of punishment, had he pressed charges, would you have been looking at, do you suppose?”

She thought long and hard. “I don’t know… maybe five years, maybe less.”

I then suggested, “You have imprisoned yourself for 28 years. Tell me, when is your release date?”

For the first time during the session, she laughed. “Years ago, I suppose. In fact, I’m overdue for my release!”

If your client had been ‘convicted’, what would their punishment have been? And what would the time limit on that punishment be?

Notice this doesn’t suggest the client wasn’t guilty of any wrongdoing; it simply contextualizes it. What is a suitable and fair ‘punishment’? How can we organize that and then put a lid on it? Or have they, in fact, served their time already?

Rituals are used for demarcations in life (such as birth, death, marriage, and coming of age), and there is a ritualistic element to punishment in which people must ‘pay’ for their crimes in order to put a line under them.


A forgiveness ritual

I asked Joan and her husband to devise a ‘forgiveness ritual’ together. She chose to write down on paper what she had done to her husband all those years before, and place that paper in the tin where she’d kept her knitting needles. She’d apologize and sign this ‘document’. Then, with her husband in attendance, she would cast it into the Irish sea near where they lived.

Joan later told me that as soon as the paper disappeared beneath the waves she felt that a tremendous burden had lifted for the first time in decades.

I once jokingly asked a woman what made her think she was so special when she said she felt like she should have the worst punishment possible for a minor wrongdoing. She laughed and admitted she might have been exaggerating a little.

So if someone is excessively guilty over something specific, these kinds of rituals – putting the wrongdoing in a box – can be extremely powerful, as has been borne out by research.8

Any kind of emotional extremism forces people to think rigidly and diminish context, so we should also look at helping our clients expand context.

Tip four: Help your client see multiple and wider contexts

I’ve done some pretty stupid, mean things in my time, but looking back I don’t conclude that “I am a bad person” (which is a kind of absolutist perception), nor do I feel eternally guilty. Guilt has a shelf life which, once guilt has done its job, needs to end.

I see where I went wrong with some of my past missteps. Obviously I’m capable of shame, embarrassment, and guilt – but I’ve never let them rage like fires. All-or-nothing perceptions need to be contextualized.

People will often feel guilty without really knowing why. These are the kinds of people who might repeatedly ask you whether they’ve upset you, when often the only time they do upset you is when they keep asking that! In these cases, we can ask for actual evidence.

What evidence is there that you have committed a sin? What are the assumptions behind these feelings?

Watch for simplified assumptions as to how life works. People, events, and situations are seldom simply good or bad but rather a concatenation of cause and effect. Does your client use simplistic, all-or-nothing, absolutist terms when ascribing causation (“They didn’t enjoy the day and it was my fault!”)?

If so, you can talk to them about how these kinds of cognitive distortions operate so that they can begin to see through and transcend them. Can you help them see the subtleties of the situation and gain control over the tyranny of absolutist thought (which is a manifestation of most emotional problems)?9

Ultimately, we need to challenge client assumptions, but we need to be careful to do this in ways that don’t crudely clash with their long-held assumptions – otherwise, they may start fiercely defending their limitations.

Tip five: Use the wisdom of Socrates

Asking open questions, as used in the Socratic questioning style so beloved of CBT practitioners, can have profound benefits. Socratic questioning is great for helping clients break free of extremist, either/or thinking.

We might wonder aloud, “Is it possible for a person to make mistakes but still generally be a person of good intentions?” Or “Can a flower grow from dirt, and does that make it any less beautiful?” We might even muse on whether the most beautiful stones are the ones that have been lashed around most in the sea.

The most powerful client learning often comes when they are left to make the connection for themselves, without the practitioner forcing this connection upon them. To this end, a great way to pose these questions is to ask them rhetorically during therapeutic trance.

Ultimately, we can all benefit from small doses of guilt and shame. In fact, a person without the capacity to feel guilt or shame might well be a psychopath. But to be shackled by these feelings is another thing entirely.

The truer we become to others, but also to ourselves, the more these feelings should begin to fade from our lives.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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