• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

Effectively Responding to Guilt and Shame

There is no such thing as a bad emotion. While not all emotions are comfortable, they are all informative. Because every single emotion you can feel as a human serves an adaptive function, it is more helpful to think of emotions as pleasant vs. unpleasant, rather than good vs. bad.

This is an important understanding to carry with you as you navigate the tension that is so palpable in the world right now. For those of doing the work of being anti-racist, feeling guilt and/or shame is going to happen. And guess what? Those are sometimes appropriate emotions. Here’s why.

Guilt and shame are social emotions that involve an understanding of the impact our actions have on others. Guilt is what you feel when you realize you have done something that had a negative impact on others. This is what you feel when you say the wrong thing (i.e., use the wrong term, ask an ignorant question). Guilt motivates you to not say or do that again. In contrast, shame is what you feel when you realize that the way that you are has had a negative impact on others. This is what you feel when you realize some internal aspect of yourself (i.e., making decisions based on implicit bias, capitalizing on your white privilege, ignoring Black voices that tell a different narrative) has led you to cause harm toward others. Shame motivates you to dig deep and work on changing your way of being – your thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs.

A lot of times we think of guilt as a more helpful emotion and shame as a more toxic one. In a broad sense, that is really true. More often than not, when people do something wrong, it reflects a mistake or a lapse in judgment (i.e., guilt) and is not a reflection of one’s true character (i.e., shame). But as we (and I’m talking to White folks here) begin to do the work of being anti-racist, I have to image that both guilt and shame are going to arise for us. Sometimes we are going to make innocent errors, and when we do and we feel guilt, we need take ownership and seek to right the wrong. But in other instances, we are going to mess up in ways that reflect our core beliefs, values, and assumptions are wrong, and we will feel shame. When that is the case, we need to take a deep look in the mirror and evaluate where those thoughts came from and what we can do to correct them in ourselves and in our community.

Sometimes your behavior needs to be corrected, and sometimes the change needs to be deeper, at the heart level. Guilt and shame can help you to know the difference.

Another reason we tend to think of guilt as more adaptive emotion than guilt is the behavior that each feeling tends to illicit. Generally speaking, guilt orients us toward justice and righting wrongs, whereas shame orients us toward hiding and avoidance. But when feeling shame, we do not have to run and hide. We can recognize it for what it is, thank it for what it is trying to teach us, and make changes that enable us to stop causing harm to ourselves and others. Here’s what that looks like:

  1. Identify it it. Become aware of what shame feels like for you. Where do you feel it in your body? What sorts of thoughts run through your mind? It can be helpful to think about the last time you felt shame to get in toch with what this feels like.

  2. Recognize the situation that caused shame. Our feelings of shame are triggered by specific events. Get really clear about what the circumstance was that caused you to feel shame, and ask yourself why you felt shame in response. Is there a part of yourself that you would have rather kept hidden that was revealed by the situation?

  3. Understand the source. Shame becomes toxic when we believe that it means we are all bad. It doesn’t. Shame means that there is a part of us that needs correction. Go back to the thoughts you identified in step one and two and notice if any of them reflect extreme thinking (look for words like always, all, and never). These are thoughts we are going to target.

  4. Challenge unhelpful thoughts. Rewrite those thoughts that reflect something you believe to be inherently true about yourself. Find counterevidence in instances where you acted in ways you are proud of and not ashamed of. Develop more balanced ways of thinking about yourself. It can be helpful to say to yourself statements such as, “There is a part of me that is _______ that needs to be worked on, but there is also a part of me that is _______ that needs to be emphasized.”

  5. Right the wrong. If your shameful actions caused harm, take ownership and right the wrong. If you said something offensive, say sorry. If you did something insensitive, apologize.

  6. Do the work. Commit to not doing it again. This is the hard part. Do not just apologize for the outward behavior, but look deep within yourself to understand the thoughts, beliefs, and needs that motivated that behavior; and work to change those.

  7. Resist the urge to hide and indulge in self-hatred. Remember that shame can make you want to hide, but that is probably the worst thing you can do when you have caused harm. It furthers the divide between you and the people/person you hurt and fuels self-hatred. It may initially be a way for you to save face and avoid further discomfort, but in the end it isn’t helpful.

Need more resources on guilt and shame? Check these out:



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