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Shame & Guilt

Introduction

We all experience feelings of shame and guilt at some point in our lives. While these feelings are normal, they can be painful and difficult to come to terms with.


This section looks at the difference between healthy and unhealthy shame and guilt and how a survivor may experience feelings of shame and guilt. It also includes a toolkit of coping strategies..

1 – Coping With Shame & Guilt - Survivor Stories

Click the video below to hear from survivors about their experiences of guilt and shame and their journeys of healing.



Click the links below to watch the survivor interviews in full on YouTube:


Click the video below to hear tips and advice from survivors about what helps them to manage experiences of guilt and shame.

You may find that your experiences of shame and guilt as a survivor are different from the ones we describe in this section, and that is completely normal. Everyone experiences shame and guilt in a different way.

 

You may find that you relate to all of the points discussed, some of them, or none at all. This guide may be a useful starting place for you to learn more about shame and guilt and find some ways that you can cope with experiencing these feelings, but it is not exhaustive. You may find the exercises and tips useful, or they might not be the right options for you at this moment in time. We are all unique in our experiences and where we are in our recovery journey, so take this section at your own pace, and explore the suggestions that feel right for you at this moment in time.

2 – The Science Of Shame & Guilt

Shame and guilt are social emotions which are a normal part of development as long as they are fleeting and positively responded to. They help us to be aware of when we have done something that might have caused hurt or harm to others. Healthy shame and healthy guilt allow us to show empathy and compassion towards others which helps us to stay connected, build relationships and develop our sense of self. Healthy guilt is recognising that we may have done something inappropriate and often guides us to try and make amends, such as offering an apology.

 

In contrast, unhealthy guilt and unhealthy, or toxic, shame are powerful and complex emotions that can:

  • Be paralysing
  • Prevent growth and the development of a healthy sense of self
  • Interfere with how we feel about ourselves, how we behave and how we relate to others
  • Make us feel very negative about ourselves
  • Make us want to withdraw and hide away from others
  • Reduce spontaneity and our ability to be fully present
  • Affect our sense of belonging
  • Make us feel fearful in relationships.

Shame is fuelled by secrecy, silence, and judgement. It can become more intense over time and can be triggered in a range of situations not necessarily related to a particular event or anything you might have done. Abusers often control the person who they are harming by making the person feel ashamed. They might do this by telling their victim that they are responsible for the abuse, either through provoking the abuser or because they ‘like’ and ‘want’ what is being done to them. This can lead to a cycle of shame in which the current shame a person feels triggers memories of other experiences of shame, which can intensify the feeling of it.

Remember: abusers make victims feel guilty or ashamed as a way of controlling them and excusing their own behaviour.

Cycle of Shame

To come out of and interrupt the shame cycle, we need to:

  • Know our shame triggers
  • Reality check the shame we feel
  • Talk with someone we trust and who doesn’t judge us.
 

Although shame and guilt are linked and share a lot of similarities, there are a number of differences between the two. Both toxic shame and unhealthy guilt are often felt despite the person not having actually done anything wrong, or as a result of experiences that they had little or no control over, during which harm was done to them. A common cause of this is due to the perpetrator of harm making their victim feel guilty or ashamed so that the perpetrator does not have to feel their own shame or guilt. This can be done by transferring blame, guilt and shame onto their victim through humiliation, the way they look at or refuse to look at their victim, and through their behaviour, actions or verbal messages.

 

Copyright: Christiane Sanderson 2020

Toxic shame and unhealthy guilt are most commonly seen in people who were neglected, rejected, humiliated or emotionally, physically or sexually abused in childhood, and those who have experienced domestic or sexual violence. If you have experienced this, you might feel ashamed for:

  • Having had to submit and not being able to protect yourself
  • Not feeling worth being properly cared for
  • Freezing, or not fighting back while being abused
  • How your body responded to sexual touch during childhood sexual abuse (CSA) or sexual violence
  • Feeling guilty and believing it is your fault rather than that something was done to you, and outside of your control
  • These feelings are stamped in even more if the person who hurt you blurs boundaries and blames you by saying “Look what you made me do” or “You like this and want me to do this”.
 

Being made to feel guilty and ashamed for something you are told you have done, even though you haven’t, is in the interest of the abuser as it:

 

  • Makes it easier to control you
  • Ensures your silence and secrecy
  • Makes it impossible for you to tell someone about the sexual assault or sexual abuse
  • Prevents you from being in touch with the harm done to you
  • Pushes down any anger about what happened to you.
 

If a survivor of abuse experiences shame and guilt, it can also benefit the abuser as it makes the survivor feel less helpless and vulnerable, as self-blame and feeling guilty can give the survivor the illusion of control in which they can imagine that “It is my fault, I can put it right” in the future if the abuse were to happen again. This also may make the survivor less likely to seek help.

Self-blame, unhealthy guilt and shame all involve taking on blame and responsibility that are not yours. Children especially blame themselves rather than those that have harmed them as they fear the consequences if they don’t. This means they often feel that they must suppress any negative feelings, which may lead to them turning against themselves, resulting in them feeling guilty and ashamed for something they did not do.

Remember: sexual abuse is about power and control and is a way for the abuser to make their victims feel responsible, guilty and ashamed so they do not have to. Abuse defines the abuser and not the person or people who they abuse. If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, the abuse you experienced in no way defines you or who you are.

Self-blame

Self-blame can occur due to the transfer of blame and responsibility from the abuser on to the person they abuse. In blaming the person they abused as though it was that person’s fault, the perpetrator makes the other person feel responsible for the abuser’s actions. This is very common in cases of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), as children are too young, powerless, and lacking in knowledge to protect themselves from such manipulation.

Blaming ourselves is a protective strategy that helps us to survive in the presence of someone who had power and control over us, and who could harm us if we resisted or disclosed the abuse.

In addition, self-blame can:

  • Help our minds to protect us
  • Provide a way to make sense of what has happened to us
  • Help to avoid overwhelming feelings of anger, grief, or betrayal
  • Help us to survive in an unsafe or stressful situation, such as living with someone who’s harmed us
  • Make us wish we could have done something differently at the time, even though we couldn’t have
  • Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) blame themselves or feel guilty or ashamed for not protecting siblings or others from being harmed
  • Self-blame is also a way of keeping the secret and protecting the non-abusing parent/carer.
Even though self-blame can be very hard to cope with, with time and support you will be able to start feeling differently. You might feel confused or overwhelmed if someone else says it wasn’t your fault, although hearing this can also be a relief.
The difference between healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt

Healthy guilt:

  • Feeling bad for something we might have done that is considered wrong or inappropriate
  • Actions or behaviours that break objective definitions of right and wrong or moral standards
  • Potentially positive as allows us to try to put things right and seek redress, which can lead to healing
  • Can lead to repair of any harm that we have caused.

 

Unhealthy guilt:

  • Feeling bad for something we have not actually done – transfer of responsibility
  • Believing that you have done something wrong because you failed to please others, especially parents, in childhood
  • Negative as leads us to emphasise self-punishment and traps us in guilt
  • Cannot repair damage as no harm has been caused by the survivor. It is an irrational belief that needs to be changed. Both healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt can be experienced from age 3-6 years onwards.

 

Shame

There are a number of different types of shame, and sometimes we can experience several of these types all at once, which can intensify the feeling. Many of these types of shame are not your responsibility, such as intergenerational shame and vicarious shame, and yet sometimes you might feel as though you are carrying them. It is really important to untangle which shame belongs to you and which belongs to others by redistributing it and placing it back where it belongs.

 

 

 

The different types of shame include:

  • Regulates our behaviour in relation to others to ensure we relate to others in a respectful way
  • Promotes empathy and compassion for others
  • Helps us to stay connected even if we have behaved inappropriately
  • Ensures that we do not become shameless, or without shame, and do not harm or hurt others.
  • What we think, believe or feel about how others see us
  • Makes us believe that people see us as flawed, defective, a failure and ‘less than’, and that we do not belong
  • Makes us believe that other people do not like or value us, that they are disgusted or angry with us, that we are unlovable and worthy of rejection
  • Can lead to wanting to hide, conceal and ‘not be seen’, and so not be exposed to further shame.
  • Externalised shame can become internalised
  • This can make us feel or believe ourselves to be inadequate, flawed, defective and bad
  • It can cause us to have a negative view of our self-worth, and to subject ourselves to self-criticism, self-loathing and self-persecution
  • It can make us put ourselves down and be critical of ourselves, perpetuating shame.
  • Occurs when self-blame, unhealthy guilt and external and internal shame become fused
  • Not due to anything that we have done. It is how we have been made to feel about ourselves through the disapproving gaze of others, humiliation and abuse
  • Feeling of being fundamentally flawed and unlovable, worthless and defective
  • Crippling and paralysing
  • Can cause us to withdraw and shrink away from social interaction and relationships to avoid further shame
  • We can become highly sensitised to shaming experiences, both externally and internally, real or imagined, through verbal or non-verbal communication, or shaming situations
  • Can cause us to become shame prone, meaning that we anticipate being shamed, or shame ourselves
  • Can be experienced from as young as 15 months
  • A negative experience, as it causes fear of rejection by others and the need to disconnect and withdraw from others to avoid further shame
  • As unhealthy, or toxic, shame becomes internalised, it becomes deeply connected to our sense of who we are, which makes it more difficult to untangle and resolve.
  • Shame can be passed from one generation to the next through hidden shameful secrets, or ‘skeletons in the cupboard’
  • Intergenerational shame is passed down from grandparents, parents, and extended family members to you
  • It usually consists of events that have been hidden over the generations such as: suicide, abandonment, illegitimacy, adoption, being in care, affairs, rape, bankruptcy, being in prison, mental health problems, childhood sexual abuse (CSA), addiction, disability, or cultural background such as race, ethnicity, religion, status or class, skin colour, financial circumstances, where we live.
  • Relational shame is a deep sense of unlovability, and lack of worth in relationships
  • It can cause us to believe we have no value, and that others will not value us, or want to be connected or be in relationship with us
  • It can cause us to become fearful or avoidant of relationships and suppress our underlying need and yearning to be connected and loved.
  • Feeling shame about our emotions such as sadness, anxiety, guilt or shame, and emotional reactions such as anger or rage
  • Feeling ashamed for having needs, especially dependency needs, for feeling vulnerable, or experiencing mental health problems.
  • Feeling ashamed for feeling ashamed
  • Increased need to conceal our shame.
  • Feeling shame on behalf of another person who is feeling shame, but has pushed it out of conscious awareness and who behaves as though they live without the shame or ‘shamelessly’
  • Taking on the shame that belongs to others
  • Feeling the shame that has been transferred onto us.

3 – Experiencing Shame & Guilt

Healthy and unhealthy guilt

Healthy guilt is the feeling we get when we know we have done something considered wrong or behaved inappropriately. It is a conscious and rational emotion that prompts us to try and redress the situation and make amends such as apologising, making reparation and changing our behaviour in the future. It is an acknowledgment of “I made a mistake” or “I did something inappropriate”.

 

This is very different to unhealthy guilt, which causes us to feel guilty for something we have not actually done or caused to happen. Unhealthy guilt is misplaced and is not based on what happened in reality. It is causes us to feel guilty over something we did not do or had no actual control over. Unhealthy guilt is most often felt by people who have experienced trauma and been harmed by people who have had power over them and who could not be challenged for fear of the consequences. This can cause us to suppress our feelings of anger and hurt, and turn these against ourselves, as blaming ourselves is safer than expressing these feelings to the person who has or is harming us.

If you suffer from unhealthy guilt, you are likely to experience:

  • Feeling guilty about things you have not actually done
  • Feeling self-conscious and anxious
  • Analysing your behaviour in a range of situations and conversations to see what you might have done wrong or should have done better
  • Thinking negatively about yourself and always feeling ‘less’ than others
  • Being self-critical, self-attacking and self-persecutory – inner critical voice
  • Being consumed with negative thoughts about yourself, and endlessly ruminating over these
  • Engaging in self-harm and self-destructive behaviour
  • Constantly apologising and saying “sorry”
  • Feel overly responsible.
Shame

What does the feeling of unhealthy, or toxic shame look like in the body?

  • Flushing, rapid heart rate, and hyperarousal
  • Shutting down and freezing, and hypoarousal
  • Hiding self by looking down or away, loss of eye contact, covering eyes or face, hunching shoulders, making self smaller and less visible
  • Blushing, tight or floppy posture, feeling nauseous or icy cold
  • Not able to speak or think clearly, speaking more slowly
  • Emotional withdrawal and retreat, becoming emotionally unavailable
  • Switching off other emotions, thoughts, behaviours, and interest.

If you suffer from shame, you may experience the following:

  • Diminished sense of self
  • Self-judgment
  • Social anxiety including performance anxiety, eating in public
  • Self-comparison, and always feeling inferior to, or ‘less than’ others
  • Self-loathing and self-persecution
  • Negative thoughts and ruminations about self
  • Negative self-talk – internal critic: “My fault I am unlovable”; “My fault I am bad and need to be beaten”; “My fault for being needy”; “My fault for wanting autonomy/independence
  • Engage in self-shaming behaviours that induce shame
  • Inhibit your emotional expression especially anger and rage
  • Perfectionism
  • Need to conceal, hide away
  • Isolation and chronic loneliness
  • Lack of self-compassion and self-empathy.
Common examples of Negative Self Thoughts and Ruminations Copyright: Christiane Sanderson 2020
Shame, guilt and family estrangement

Some survivors of rape or sexual abuse make the difficult and often painful decision to cut ties from close friends or family members. This can often cause a survivor to experience feelings of shame and guilt. This is perfectly normal, but if this applies to you, please know that you have done nothing to feel guilty for. Sometimes this decision is necessary to protect yourself and to help yourself to heal and recover from the trauma you have experienced. You do not owe an explanation of this to anyone.

For more information on experiencing the shame and guilt of family estrangement, visit
Psychology Today’s article on the subject.

4 – Shame & Guilt Toolkit

Seeking support

If you are looking for support to help you on your recovery journey, you are not alone.

The Survivors Trust has over 120 member organisations based in the UK and Ireland which provide specialist support for women, men and children who are survivors of any kind of rape, sexual violence, or sexual abuse.

Click here to find details about our member organisations local to you.

Healing from self-blame, shame and guilt

To heal from self-blame, guilt and shame it is important to remember that rape and sexual abuse is never the victim’s fault. It was the perpetrator’s choice to abuse you for their own benefit and you could not have stopped it, even if you believed you could. Making you feel guilty, ashamed or like you are to blame is a way for the abuser to make you feel it was your responsibility, so they do not have to. The guilt and shame for abuse can only ever be placed onto the abuser. You have no reason to feel any guilt or shame because it was not your fault.

The best antidote to shame is empathy and to be able to talk about it with someone you trust and who will not judge you. To release shame, you could try to:

  • Have empathy for yourself
  • Not judge yourself
  • Talk about your shame with someone you trust and who does not judge you
  • Speak out to break the silence and secrecy that binds you.
  • Do a reality check to separate your shame from the shame that has been transferred onto you
  • Speak to your negative thoughts and critical voice in the same way you would speak to someone you love.
 

It is also helpful to untangle the feelings of guilt and shame, and to identify shame triggers and the impact shame has had on you and continues to hold over you, such as negative self- talk and negative thoughts about yourself. This will allow you to begin the process of de-shaming and allow you to uncover frozen emotions that are buried by shame.

In untangling the web of confusion about responsibility, guilt and shame you will be able to separate the healthy guilt and shame that belongs to you from that which has been transferred on to you and which you have absorbed as your own. Through this you can transfer the unhealthy guilt and shame back to the abuser, and those who hurt you, and redistribute the shame and guilt. This will enable you to reclaim reality and realise what happened to you. It will help you to put an end to any crippling self-blame and shame and allow you to live your life more fully.

Top tips for releasing shame
  • Break the silence and secrecy of shame – talk about it
  • Practice empathy and compassion for yourself
  • Embrace self-acceptance and self-kindness
  • Connect with people you trust and who will not judge you
  • Withhold judgement of yourself
  • Reality-check your thoughts and feelings
  • Speak to yourself the same way you would speak to someone you love
  • Recognise your emotions and needs, and express them
  • Allow yourself to be human
  • Build shame resilience
  • Interrupt the shame cycle, negative thoughts and ruminations
  • Redistribute shame and guilt by transferring it back where it belongs
  • Only take responsibility for what is truly yours and what you have done and let go of unhealthy guilt and self-blame
  • Balance shame with healthy pride
  • Make a ‘cookie jar’ containing affirmations of things you feel good about yourself, challenges you have faced and overcome, skills you have mastered and things you have achieved.
Healing from healthy guilt
  • Face the behaviour and take responsibility for harm done
  • Apologise, try and make amends and seek forgiveness/redress
  • Change destructive behaviour and attitudes that created the harm
  • Heal relationships with the person affected.
Healing from unhealthy guilt

 

  • Separate and resolve healthy guilt to uncover unhealthy guilt
  • Transfer guilt back onto the abuser, and those that harmed you
  • Practice self-compassion
  • Seek connection with others.
Healing from unhealthy or toxic shame
  • Exercise self-compassion to shift feelings of shame and move away from self- criticism or proof of inadequacy
  • Seek connection to others and develop a sense of belongingness
  • Build shame resilience and authentic pride.
Click here for six steps to transform shame into self-compassion

Step 1: Understand the nature of shame. Shame is normal and the brain’s way of dealing with the threat of disconnection.

Step 2:  Label shame for what is: an emotion. Giving it a name helps you to get some distance between you and the emotion.

Step 3: Replace judgement with curiosity. Curiosity about your emotions can help you to shift into a more caring and understanding perspective

Step 4: Acknowledge the inner critic which amplifies your shame. Remind your inner critic that you are a work in progress trying to navigate the best you can.

Step 5: Practice what is helpful, not harmful. Try to speak to yourself like you would a friend. Ask yourself what would be helpful for recovering from shame rather than perpetuate it through shaming self-attack.

Step 6: Build shame resilience and counterbalance shame with authentic pride by reminding yourself of all the things you have achieved or mastered, such as having survived or still having hope.

Adapted from National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine (NICABM)

Compassion-focused exercises
The below link outlines several exercises that can help you to build compassion for yourself and others.

 

Click here – Positive Psychology

 

The resource covers:

 

  • Soothing Rhythm Breathing
  • Simple Body Scan and Relaxation
  • Creating a Safe Place
  • Compassionate Colours
  • The Compassionate Self
  • Compassionate Flowing Out
  • Focusing the Compassionate Self on Others
  • Compassionate Flowing into Oneself: Using Memory
  • Focusing the Compassionate Self on Yourself
  • Creating a Compassionate Ideal.
Copyright: Christiane Sanderson 2020

5 – Useful Resources for Shame & Guilt

Books
  • Bradshaw, J (2006). Healing the Shame that Binds You Revised Edition. Health Communications
  • Brown, B (2007). I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from What Will People Think?’ to ‘I am Enough’. Avery Publishing (also available on Audible as an audio book)
  • Brown, B (2018). The gifts of imperfection. Hazelden Publishing (also available on Audible as an audio book)
  • Gilbert, P (2015). Mindful Compassion: How the Science of Compassion Can Help you to Understand your Emotions, Live in the Present and Connect deeply with Others. Robinson
  • Neff, K (2019). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength and Thrive. Guilford Press
  • Sanderson, C (2016). The Warrior Within: A One in Four Handbook to aid recovery for survivors of childhood sexual abuse and violence 3rd Edition. London, One in Four
  • Sanderson, C (2015). Counselling Skills for Working with Shame. London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers
  • Spring, C (2019). Unshame: Healing trauma-based shame through psychotherapy 2nd Edition. Carolyn Spring Publishing
  • Lee, D (2013). The Compassionate Mind Approach to Recovering from Trauma and PTSD: Using Compassion Focused Therapy to Overcome Flashbacks, Shame, Guilt and Fear. New Harbinger.