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  • Writer's pictureAveril

Untangling an Emotional Triad: Guilt, Shame, and Resentment

Updated: Jul 14, 2023



The emotion of guilt makes a frequent appearance in my sessions with clients. Some are visited by feelings of guilt almost daily. Guilt (or the avoidance of it, because it is so unpleasant), determines their choices, actions, and how they spend their time. When it drives decision-making, it is also often followed hotly by obligation and its twin, resentment. This post explores the ideas of appropriate and inappropriate guilt, as well as the difference between guilt and shame.


Appropriate and inappropriate guilt


Just like all emotions, guilt can be a healthy and informative emotional experience. Guilt is an appropriate response when we do something that conflicts with our own healthy values. Recognising that a potential action might cause guilt is one factor that helps to keep us in line and act as thoughtful members of society. A person who is lacking prosocial values does not feel guilty when they cause hurt, so experiencing guilt is a sign of a functioning moral individual who cares about their wider impact.


The reason guilt ends up as a common topic of therapy however is because many people feel excessively guilt where it is not warranted. They may struggle with healthy boundaries and feel overly responsible for others. They might believe that it is selfish or they are unworthy of prioritising their own needs, so they cannot say no without guilt.


This unnecessary guilt can become destructive and significantly impact a person’s quality of life when it becomes so uncomfortable or frequent that avoiding it begins to drive choices and decision making. It is such a powerful emotion that people will overcommit and spread themselves far too thin because they cannot bear the guilt that will accompany setting limits. A person may need to put in some work on strengthening their self-worth, reflecting on their values and allowing themselves boundaries, in order to be able to accurately assess whether a course of action warrants a healthy response of guilt.


Shame


Additionally, guilt often morphs into debilitating shame. Where guilt is the helpful course-corrector for our moral compass, telling us when our actions have strayed from what we know to be right by our personal values, shame is directed squarely at our selves.


Appropriate guilt might tell us “I was really too abrupt in that conversation, I’d like to go apologise.”


Shame hisses “Why am I such an asshole to everyone?”


This example also illustrates how appropriate guilt can serve to reconnect us to what is important, where shame draws us back inside ourselves. Guilt refocuses our attention on putting the situation right, perhaps apologising or repairing a relationship, or re-engaging in a better course of action. Instead of self-condemnation, we focus on learning from our mistakes and finding constructive ways to make amends. If we’ve caused another person pain, appropriate guilt guides us towards them to make amends.


Shame is a more fundamental assessment of our character – I’m an asshole, in totality, in perpetuity. There is little hope for change in that appraisal. It’s demoralising and exhausting to sit in shame. Shame is so painful to experience that we may respond with anger, either at ourselves or others. Some people find shame so intolerable that the only way to overcome it is to propel themselves to the other extreme – I haven’t done anything wrong, something is wrong with you, not me, I have a good reason why I did that bad thing – even when they may have done something that could be cause for appropriate guilt.


During my career in the forensic sector, I engrained in myself a belief that there are no bad people, only bad behaviour. While this attitude was forged working in prisons, I find myself sharing the same principle with couples facing the aftermath of infidelity or other betrayals. If you are sitting there believing that you or your partner is just a bad person, there’s not much we can work with. But behaviour, that we can do something about.


A balanced approach to assessing guilt and mitigating resentment


Our values can be one guide to determining whether the guilt you are feeling is warranted or unfair. When I ask clients like this which of their own values they have crossed so that they should appropriately feel guilty, they often can’t find one, or have to stretch to make it fit. For those with a strong tendency to feel guilt, there might be unhealthy beliefs at play, such as valuing extreme levels of self-sacrifice for others far beyond their own self-care. This comes out often as “I’m allowed to say no if I really have something else I have to do.” Many people feel the only permissible reason to say no is another obligation.


In other situations, guilt arises from a genuine values conflict – the person who feels guilty because they don’t visit an elderly relative frequently, or who desperately wants to say no to a dear friend’s party invitation because they are worn out, or they have their own valid preference for quiet nights in.


These scenarios are complex. A little relief can come from accepting that when two of our values clash (for example, when being a loving family member or friend conflicts with other values concerning how we spend our time), there may not be a perfect solution that balances the scale equally. A decision or course of action has costs and benefits that may not be equal on all fronts.


In situations of values-clashes, it’s okay to experience some sadness and discomfort that we are unable to meet all of our values equally all of the time. A healthy and stable sense of our self-worth supports us to know that we are all allowed to balance the wants and needs of others with our own.


At other times we might choose to put others first because we know it supports our value of connection, or being a loving friend or family member. Mentally shifting the decision from an obligation to an act of choice can help to dissipate the resentment that tends to follow feeling like we cannot say no out of avoidance of guilt. In turn, being able to trust our own boundaries and know that we will allow ourselves to say no on other occasions moves us away from guilt-based choices.


When we have assessed that guilt is appropriate


Of course, when we have fairly determined that we have crossed our own line, appropriate guilt is still a challenging emotion to experience. Self-compassion can assist with many aspects that may have made guilt excessively difficult in the past. It is important to remember that mistakes and imperfections are part of the human experience, and no-one is exempt from this. I often ask clients to imagine a person who never made mistakes, and how insufferable they would be for the rest of us! Embracing this vulnerability and accepting that we are not infallible can help us develop resilience and a healthier self-image.


While appropriate guilt encourages growth and reconnects us to our values and important others, shame can be debilitating, hindering our personal development and relationships. Though it may seem like a subtle difference at first, taking the time to differentiate between appropriate guilt and shame has far-reaching and worthwhile benefits for many people who been plagued by these feelings. Learning to relinquish unfair and inappropriate guilt and shame means we can reclaim time, energy, and self-esteem, all which have significant impacts on our day-to-day experiences. This allows us to bring our best selves forward into the activities and relationships that matter the most to us, including our relationship with ourselves.



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