Guilt and shame are siblings in the family of feelings. Despite certain similarities, there is a clear distinction between them. Guilt is feeling bad about something you have done, while shame is feeling bad about who you are or a part of you. One is about behavior and can be changed. The other is related to your sense of identity and therefore harder to change.
Parenting styles and good intentions
In the ever evolving phases of parenting styles, the shift from physical punishment to shame was intended to use guilt more effectively than before, in the hope that it would teach children how to behave when their parents were not there. A bit like a GPS. Parents decided that guilt was better than smacking because it worked even when Mom and Dad were not there. The purpose was still to monitor and control emotionally, but with good intentions – to create lasting discipline.
I compare this guilt to a GPS because the first time I drove a rented car with a GPS in it, I realized it was like there was a policeman with us in the car. He kept saying (in a kind and nice voice) that there was a speed camera ahead or that I was speeding. I even paid for him to be with me in the car and tell me what was the right or wrong speed! Parents use guilt like a GPS, to tell us when we are doing well or badly.
Guilt is the pain we feel when we regret a thought, action or non action. It is a strong emotion when we act in a way that is against what we believe is right. Guilt is not a very healthy way to function, so it is fortunate that it is easier to overcome than shame.
The distinction between guilt and shame is very important in understanding the “I am OK – You’re OK” parenting style. Guilt is an awareness of failure against some standard that can be changed. Shame is a feeling of failure in the eyes of someone else – usually someone you hold in high esteem. It is a standard that is beyond your power to change. In other words, guilt is associated with disobedience or regret and shame is the fear of what others would think.
In some cultures and older generations, parents used guilt in daily communication with their kids. This usually requires the parent to have a victim mentality: a feeling that they have no control and life simply happens around them. They show disappointment that the kid does not fit a standard they created.
Some say that guilt can also be good when we compare our behavior to our own set of beliefs and value. In this case, we are the ones who set the standard. So guilt is not 100% bad. It simply has a bad reputation. Good can come of it if we consciously develop our own definitions of right and wrong, and hold ourselves to those standards. Be careful though. It is important to keep it within reason. Do not be too critical of yourself.
Long term feelings of guilt in children may be a warning sign for depression. It triggers strong negative emotions of sadness, worthlessness and hopelessness. Some bi-polar episodes were found to be connected to long term guilt.
Psychologists distinguish between real guilt, false guilt and neurotic guilt. Real guilt is when the kid is responsible for the failure and false guilt is when the problem is out of the kid’s control. Here is an example: when a kid is late for class because he got up late or took his time in the morning, his guilt will be real and true guilt. If he is late because mom did not get up in the morning or took her time nursing a hangover, it would be false guilt and be very damaging. False guilt can associated with shame – a feeling of turning inwards and perceiving oneself negatively. If there was no shame, the kid would simply say it was because of mom. Finally, neurotic guilt is when a child or adult blames themselves for failures that were out of his/her control. For example, abusive relationships may produce neurotic guilt feelings. When you talk to an abuse victim they may say that, “He hit me because of something I did”.
Neurotic guilt feelings are an attempt to get out of an “I’m not OK, you’re not OK” and shift to an “I am not OK, you’re OK” mind frame. It is often a sign of insecurity and produces lots of anxiety. For many people who experience feelings of guilt, blaming others can be worse than blaming themselves. In addition, guilt has lots of physical and emotional implications. The anxiety depletes the body of nutrients and can cause problems with sleeping, concentration, eating, work and relationships.
Some people use guilt in their relationships as well as their parenting styles. Claire Colvin wrote in her book College Sex & Love: Dealing with Guilt in Relationship, “Using guilt as a weapon may get you what you want in the short term, but it is a dangerous tactic that will undermine your relationship and rob you of intimacy with your partner”.
The best way to treat guilt feelings is to make sure you do not have them in the first place. The second way is to go to a professional to help you overcome guilt. Psychologists and life coaches are very good candidate. I personally think that the most long term solution is to adopt very forgiving, accepting, flexible beliefs that will support you in dealing with others’ disappointments or with your own guilt feelings. In the Be Happy in LIFE program, we dedicate much time to establish these positive beliefs. Having such accepting believes can be a powerful toolkit for kids and adults alike.
Join me next time for the 4 parenting styles.
This post is part of the series I'm OK - You're OK Parenting:
- I’m OK, You’re OK Parenting: OK and EQ
- I’m OK, You’re OK Parenting: Shame
- I’m OK, You’re OK Parenting: Guilt
- I’m OK, You’re OK Parenting: Parenting Styles
- I’m OK, You’re OK Parenting: Being an “I’m OK” Parent
- I’m OK, You’re OK Parenting: Being a “You’re OK” Parent
- I’m OK, You’re OK Parenting: “I’m OK” Beliefs