• Linda Buchanan

Using Guilt Might Help You Move From Shame to Acceptance


You know that feeling you get when you’ve done something wrong and you can’t stop thinking about it? That happened to me a few days ago. I made a big mistake, and though it actually came from a good place in my heart, It was still wrong. It was kind of an over-eager response in the wrong time and place. Like the kid in me shouting out before the adult part of me had time to intercede. When I realized what I’d done, I felt a stab of shame akin to “I’m impulsive and I should have known better.” I was obsessing and having trouble falling asleep.


So, I’m practicing what I teach by working from shame to acceptance through guilt. Shame is when you feel like you’re a bad or unworthy person. Notice the “I” statements above. When a person is experiencing shame, their thoughts are characterized by negative identity statements such as I’m bad” or “I’m unloveable.” However, what I’d done certainly didn’t merit labeling myself as a bad or unloveable person even though I felt some of that initially. 


So the next question is, “If shame does not fit this experience I’m having, could it be guilt?" That fits better. I did something wrong. As opposed to shame, GUILT IS USEFUL. Guilt motivates us to learn from our mistake and/or make reparations for our behaviors. So, I ask myself "Is there anything to learn from this experience?" The answer is YES and I have! Now I can replay the incident with a new reaction on my part that allows the kid in me to be excited but wait for the appropriate response. Instead of ruminating in shame, I will replay a correct outcome cloaked in kindness rather than criticism. Like a gentle and patient teacher kindness. This is like mindful practice through imagery. I replay the scene with all the initial reactions but imagine a different behavior on my part. 


The next question to ask myself is “Can I make reparations?” I don’t think there is much that impresses people more than when we apologize for something. Instead of lowering ourselves in the other’s esteem it generally raises us to new heights in their eyes! It’s too bad that it oftentimes is so difficult to bring ourselves to do it. However in this situation, although it did involve another person who might have been bothered by my action, I don’t have the opportunity to apologize. 


Okay, next question: “Is there anything else I can do about it now?" Answer: no. If not, it it is time for me to shift from guilt to regret. I do regret it happened but there’s nothing else to do or learn. And I regret that the other person may have been bothered. As I label the uncomfortable feeling as regret it is easier to turn my mind away from it onto other things such as acceptance that I’m human. 


Finally, I know I might have to recycle through these steps more than once but I have a roadmap. If the shame comes back up, I’ll tell myself there is no place for shame in this scenario. If I start feeling guilty, I’ll remind myself that there is nothing else I can do about it. And if I feel regret, I’ll simply accept that feeling with kindness, reminding myself that I am human.


Is your mind replaying something you’ve done due to the irrationality of shame or because you ignored the message in your guilt? See if you can move from shame to acceptance now.

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Walden  Behavioral Care

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© 2019 by Linda Buchanan PhD.   Website by Nancy Steffke.