Shame and Guilt

We discussed a paper published by CambridgeCore entitled

“Working with guilt and shame”.

We all agreed on the important distinction between guilt and shame being that guilt is about what I do to others whereas shame is who I am. Both need to be normalised by the therapist through an attitude of acceptance.

The etymology of both terms is interesting: guilt deriving from the German word GELD which means money or debt, thus leading to a sense of having to pay a debt or repair something and shame deriving from the Indo-european word SKEM which means cover, thus leading to a sense of needing to hide an aspect of ourselves as in some way we feel we have fallen short in the eyes of others and in our own eyes. As an example again, the parent induces guilt by saying “what you did was naughty” whereas shame comes from the parent saying “ you are a naughty child”. Also a person who experiences shame expects to be abandoned,whereas a person with guilt expects to be punished.

Guilt is usually felt by the client in their mind so the therapist needs initially to have an intellectual understanding of what is going on, whereas shame is felt more in the body and can be embedded and so emerges more slowly in the therapeutic process. The therapist needs to show compassion so the client feels safe enough to share this exposing feeling.

We discussed how shame can be healthy, perhaps as in a sacred part of ourselves that we need to protect, or toxic when associated with more negative feelings about the self.

Likewise Guilt can be healthy when it contributes to a sense of cohesion in the community and so has a social aspect as in obeying laws. Reference was made here to a book by Rurger Bregman entitled “Humankind” which posits the notion that humans are basically kind.

We also discussed the link with guilt and shame in addictive behavior and a book was recommended entitled  “the booze battle”.

The paper proved to be a rich source of ideas and stimulated lively debate.

Rosemary Pitt, 24/11/2020

Shame and Guilt

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