Guilt can have survival value but shame is toxic
Guilt could be considered one of the feelings inherited from evolution (like fear, anger and sadness) as it has survival value and can help with healing and repairing relationships. There can be a lack of any true sense of guilt or remorse from individuals high in psychopathy for the harm they may have caused others. Our prime drives are to survive and to affiliate as we come into the world dependent on others in order to survive and to prosper. If we didn’t experience guilt we would not affiliate with others and there would not be reparatory behaviours towards people harmed.
Shame, on the other hand, can be viewed as a kind of self-murder as it destroys self-esteem. There is no survival value in feeling shame. Guilt may say I’ve done something wrong whereas shame says there is something wrong with me. Guilt says I’ve made a mistake whereas shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not good and shame says I am no good.
Shame can develop in negative parenting styles and where there has been abuse, abandonment or addictions in the family. Parents can shame their children by abandoning them and toxic shame is when you think that you are to blame for anything bad that happened to you. This can potentially lead to the development of a false self in order to survive in the world and to cope with perceived threats from others. The false self cover-up makes it impossible to develop self-esteem. Shame can be seen as a sickness of the soul, like a wound that is felt from the inside dividing you from yourself and from others.
Counselling and psychotherapy can be a process of healing past emotional trauma and transforming negative and self-limiting belief systems. Uncovering your real self and learning to show compassion to yourself can be a unique experience. Getting rid of outdated belief systems can lead to more positive relationships where your self-esteem can grow and flourish.
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About Noel Bell
Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, CBT, humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.