Guilt and shame
This module will help you explore and understand:
- what guilt and shame are and why we have these emotions
- why it is important to manage these emotions
- how to deal with shame.
What are guilt and shame?
Guilt and shame are often talked about as the same emotions but there are some key differences.
- Guilt is the acknowledgement that we have done something wrong, but that behaviour does not define who we are as a person. Someone experiencing guilt is able to recognise their positive qualities and still see themselves in a good light.
- Shame is the belief that we have done something wrong and that makes us a bad person. Someone experiencing shame may not be able to identify their positive qualities or see themselves in a good light.
We’ve worked with thousands of people who have committed sexual offences and have experienced shame. Feeling guilt and shame are normal reactions. But these emotions can be incredibly difficult to cope with and can lead to feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. This is sometimes referred to as the shame spiral
This module aims to help you recognise if you’re feeling shame and ways you can overcome it so that you can build a positive and offence free life.
Why is it important to manage these emotions?
We can think about guilt as a helpful emotion because it helps us to behave in line with our values and moral code. For example, if we value loyalty but behave in a way that is not loyal to friends or family (such as criticising them behind their back), we might feel guilt. This can then motivate us to be more loyal in the future in line with our values.
But shame is unhelpful, especially if we experience it for a long time. If someone sees themselves as a bad person, they might not see a way out of their situation or feel unable to change their behaviour. This can make them more likely to re-offend and potentially more likely to harm themselves.
Exercise 1: recognising shame
We can experience and recognise shame in different ways, including physical, emotional and behavioural signs. Being able to recognise when you feel ashamed is the first step in being able to manage that feeling so that it doesn’t become unhelpful.
There are some examples in the table below of how some people recognise if they are experiencing shame, and some might apply to you. Try to identify other signs and add them to the table.
|Physical cues (how our body reacts)||Emotional cues (how we feel)||Cognitive cues (what we think)||Behavioural cues (how we behave)|
|Feeling sick||Feeling worthless||I am a terrible person||Drinking more|
|Sweating||Feeling rejected||I don’t deserve support||Avoiding people|
If you struggle to identify your feelings then please see the module recognising and dealing with feelings.
Reflecting on what we have covered so far, ask yourself: which do you think you are experiencing – guilt or shame?
We strongly encourage the people we work with to try to move away from shame. Sometimes people are reluctant to do this, believing that they should feel bad because of what they have done. We are not excusing offending or suggesting people should not feel regret or guilt. But shame is not helpful. It makes it more difficult for you to move forwards – away from the offending behaviour – and towards making a valuable contribution to your family, friends and society.
How to deal with shame
We’ve worked with thousands of people who have committed sexual offences and have experienced guilt and shame. These feelings are normal and feeling guilty can help make sure you don’t engage in harmful behaviour in the future. However, shame can be incredibly difficult to cope with and can lead to feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, which can prevent you from moving to an offence free life.
Here are some techniques you can use to manage your feelings of shame.
Accept responsibility for your mistake
Facing what you have done is the first step toward forgiving yourself. Don’t make excuses or try to justify your actions.
See this as an opportunity to learn and grow as a person. Identify where you could have done better and make a plan for how to handle similar situations in the future. This can help give you the confidence that you won’t repeat your mistakes.
Talk about your feelings
It can be really helpful to talk to someone else about how you feel. Other people are often good at challenging you or pointing out things that you do well. They will see the whole person and not just the behaviour. By sharing how you feel, the emotions can become easier to manage. If you need help with talking about your thoughts and feelings, visit our opening up to others module.
Find an emotional outlet
Making changes in your life can cut down on negative emotions, but it won’t eliminate them. As you make changes in your life to reduce negative emotions such as shame, you will also need to find healthy outlets for dealing with these emotions, for example:
- regular exercise provides an emotional lift and an outlet for negative emotions
- meditation can help stop you from feeling overwhelmed
- finding opportunities for having fun and getting more laughter in your life can also change your perspective and relieve stress.
Find a few of these outlets, and you’ll feel less overwhelmed when having negative emotions.
Work on your self-talk
What you say to yourself in your mind is called self-talk. It can have a really great impact on your self-esteem and confidence.
When we feel shame, it can be difficult to see the good things about ourselves and our lives. The shame spiral can make us only focus on the negatives. We might, for example, expect others to only think badly about us. It is important to get yourself out of the spiral.
One way of doing this is to recognise your negative thoughts and balance them with a more realistic view. To do this, remind yourself of the positives about yourself and your life. Make a list of things you like about yourself, things you are good at, things you have achieved, and things other people like about you. It can be useful to carry the list around with you and look at it when you feel shame. Keep adding to the list and keep reminding yourself of the positives.
Holding on to shame can affect your ability to move forward positively. Please write down three examples of positive self-talk that help you to see that you and your offending are not the same.
Talk to us if you need support
The experienced advisors on our confidential helpline can support you if you want to discuss anything covered in this module, have struggled when working through it, or want to go through the information with a practitioner to guide you. You can stay anonymous and don’t have to give your real name, location, or any contact details. If you’re not ready to speak to anyone yet, you can also use our live chat or send a secure email.