Many clients say to me: “I need to stop feeling guilty” or “I just want this guilt to go away”. For me these are very interesting statements that require more exploration, and I hope by reading this you will get more of an understanding why.
Through my study and practice of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), I feel that I have developed my understanding of the nature of guilt and how it can be confused with shame. We may say that we are feeling guilt for something, when really what we are experiencing is shame. This is an important distinction to make, so, this blog starts with firstly understanding what shame is.
Shame vs Guilt
CFT is a therapeutic approach grounded in evolutionary psychology, social psychology and attachment theory (Gilbert, 2014). It appreciates the complex nature of the evolved human mind in which emotions and social processing influence our motives and behaviour (Gilbert, 2010). We have evolved to create positive feelings about ourselves, but also awareness of how we exist in the mind of others (Gilbert, 2010). Understanding shame is important to learn about how we socially function and how we develop our sense of identity.
My favourite quote about shame comes from Paul Gilbert in a workshop I attended this year. He said: “shame is the shit of the mind”, and it really is. It is the painful emotion, the dark side of our mind, making us want to hide away, conceal, and can make us be unkind to ourselves. The word shame is thought to have come from an old word meaning ‘to cover’ (Irons, 2019). Thinking of shame may bring up certain images or memories, and you may connect to how it may have left (or leaves) you feeling. There maybe certain body experiences, thoughts, and emotions. We can experience shame in relation to all sorts of things: things that we should have done, things we haven’t done, things that were not our fault and that we had no control over or did not want to experience. Shame can take any opportunity to rear its ugly head. When we experience shame to overcome this threat, we can use safety mechanisms to hide whatever is shameful and we close down to others to there is a reduced risk about finding out about what makes us feel shameful (Gilbert, 2013).
In terms of theory, from an evolutionary biopsychosocial perspective, shame is a defense mechanism that arises when our “social attractiveness is under threat or has been lost, alerting individuals to disruptions in their social rank and social relationships” (Ferreira, et al., 2020; Gilbert 1998, 2007). The function of shame is to ensure survival and keep us safe from rejection and attacks from others (Gilbert, 2007).
This approach conceptualizes two kinds of shame: internal shame and external shame. Internal shame focuses our attention on ourselves and on negative evaluation and feelings of ourselves, and gives rise to thinking that we are defective, flawed, not worthwhile, inadequate or a failure (Ferreira, et al., 2019). External shame focuses our attention on others, and how we are judged by them; how we exist in the minds of others (Gilbert, 2010, 2021). Shame also has a BFF – our self-critics; hiding in wait for the moment to come out and tell us all the things that we have done wrong or all the things we are not.
I have spent a lot of time talking about shame when the title of the blog was about guilt. So, lets start to think about the good things about guilt. Unlike shame, guilt connects to our caring motivation. When we feel guilty it usually means that we did something that we are not pleased about and we want to make amends or repair any damage we could have created. Guilt is the ‘I did something bad’, as opposed to ‘I am bad’ of shame.
Now, feeling guilty is still not a pleasant experience. Think about a time you may have done or said something that was hurtful, rude, or uncalled-for (or not done or said something to someone when a time called). Try and think about how that felt in your body, what emotions came up, how did it affect your thoughts, and were there any memories that popped up? It still feels uncomfortable right? However, I may imagine that it is less overwhelming than your shame experience. Also, think about what you may have done as a result of feeling guilt. Again, I can imagine that you had the urge to make amends or apologise or do something nice to make up for your actions. These are the important distinctions between guilt and shame, as guilt sits in the caring social mentality, therefore it is about reparation. Shame is about isolation.
In summary, we do not want to get rid of guilt. Although it is still hard to experience, its intentions are good. So, next time you feel guilty, take a pause and consider whether it is guilt or shame, or even a combination of both.
CFT was developed initially to help individuals with high levels of self-criticism and shame. One way of understanding and formulating problems/experiences in CFT is through the ‘three circles’ model of emotional regulation (I have talked about this in a previous blog: "Why is it hard to be kind to myself?"). Shame is linked to the threat system and makes it difficult for us to connect with others and ourself in order to connect and sooth ourselves (Irons, 2019). Compassion is the anti-dote for shame as we are looking to balance our three systems.
Compassion Focused Therapy explores some of these harder emotions and motivations in order for us to develop compassion, which is defined as: “a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others (and its causes) with a commitment to relieve and prevent it” (Irons, 2019). This is something that is a challenge as we are required to have the courage to acknowledge and engage with our suffering, not shy away from it. Through sessions, the capacity and motivation for compassion can be explored and cultivated.
Written from the experience of my CFT journey so far and the incredible work of Paul Gilbert. Also, Chris Irons as I first attended introductory training with him and he ignited my interest in CFT.
Ferreira C., Moura-Ramos, M., Matos, M., & Galhardo, A. (2020) ‘A new measure to assess external and internal shame: development, factor structure and psychometric properties of the External and Internal Shame Scale’, Current Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-00709-0
Gilbert, P. (2010) ‘Compassion Focused Therapy’. New York: Routledge.
Gilbert, P. (2014) ‘The Compassionate Mind’. London: Robinson.
Gilbert, P. (2014) ‘The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy’, British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53, pp. 6-41.
Irons, C. (2019) ‘Difficult Emotions’. London: Robinson.
Written by Helena Virk, M.Sc.
Psychologist at AntiLoneliness
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