Dealing with Shame and Guilt As a Result of Addiction pt. III

Posted on April 30th, 2010

Because of the differences between shame and guilt (who I am versus what I did), people respond to each emotion differently.

Guilt, because it emphasizes what someone did wrong, tends to elicit more constructive responses, particularly responses that seek to mend the damage done.  Guilt is tied to beliefs about what is wrong, moral and immoral.  When we violate one of these moral guidelines, it causes us to feel guilty over our actions and seek to fix what we have done.  As a result, guilt is an important tool in maintaining standards of right and wrong in individuals and society as a whole.  As such, guilt can often be used as a tool to overcome conflict.

Shame, on the other hand, emphasizes what is wrong with us.  It has a much more inward focus, and as such, leads shameful parties to feel poorly about themselves, rather than simply the actions they have taken.  The result is often an inward turning behavior – avoiding others, hiding your face, etc. Therefore, shame can be problematic, as it is often less constructive than guilt.  In fact, shame can lead to withdrawal from social situations and a subsequent defensive, aggressive, and retaliatory behavior, which only exacerbates conflict, rather than alleviating it.

Shame can also lead to other types of behavior, many of which serve little or no constructive role.  People cope with shame in many ways.  However, few get at the actual source of the emotion.  The following is a list of common shame-driven behaviors:

1. Attacking or striking out at other people.  In an attempt to feel better about their shame, people will often strike out at others in the hope that they will be lifted up by bringing others down.  While this behavior may produce short-term relief from shame, in the long term shame is only strengthened and nothing is done to get at the root of the problem.

2. Compulsivity and addiction.  Through compulsive behaviors and addictions, we can anesthetize our feelings of shame and guilt.  Unfortunately, the relief experienced through the disconnectedness is temporary.  Subsequent feelings of remorse and guilt compound our shame and the compulsive behavior and addiction cycle is repeated.

3. Seeking power and perfection.  Others attempt to overcome their shame by preventing the possibility of future shame.  One way in which they do this is by aiming for perfection – a process that inevitably fails and causes more problems.  Another manner in which people cope is by seeking power, which makes them feel more valuable.

4. Diverting blame.  By blaming our faults or problems on others we can avoid guilt and shame.  However, like the previous responses, doing this fails to get at the core problems and as a result, fails to achieve its purpose.

5. Being overly nice or self-sacrificing.  People sometimes compensate for feelings of shame or unworthiness by attempting to be exceptionally nice to others.  By pleasing everyone else, we hope to prove our worth.  However, this inevitably involves covering up our true feelings, which is once again, self-defeating.
6. Withdrawal.  By withdrawing from the real world, we can essentially numb ourselves to the feelings of guilt and shame so that we are no longer upset by these sorts of things.  Again, nothing has been done to address the core issues of the problem.

While each of these actions may provide temporary relief, the long term effects are often negative and deepen feelings of shame and guilt.


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