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Guilt, Bogus Guilt, and Shame

If you’re feeling bad about yourself, you might as well do it up right. Make something good come out of it. You can do it three different ways, and though they all feel pretty much the same at the time, the way you think and talk to yourself determines whether you end up feeling better or worse in the end. Let’s look at three ways to do guilt and shame, each with its own self-talk approaches.

Shame

“I’m a bad person. I always seem to do bad.” People who think this way were usually raised by parents who put them down: “Bad boy!” “Bad girl!” “You’re a spoiled brat!” “You stupid, lazy, good-for-nothing kid!” Kids who hear these remarks usually come to believe these words, and so they acted accordingly as children, and often still do as adults.

Bogus Guilt

“My (spouse, child, loved one) has been unhappy and has messed up. This situation must be my fault. I must think and try harder now to help them feel better and do better.” These are the thoughts of people whose parents were not very responsible for themselves. Some of these irresponsible parents may have been addicts, lazy bums, habitually helpless, or maybe they just never had to grow up. Often such people manage to get their parents (and later in life their spouse or children too) to be overly responsible, too conscientious. These enablers overcompensate and overprotect the irresponsible person by making excuses for them, lying for them, or cleaning up their messes.

If one of your parents was an overly responsible enabler who overprotected or overindulged, chances are that irresponsible people in your life today sometimes get you to feel and take responsibility for their feelings and choices. So when they feel bad or make bad choices, you somehow feel and believe these must be something more you can do to help them. That feeling is bogus guilt.

The more you trust that feeling and act on it, the less self-esteem, self-discipline, and wisdom your loved ones will show. That’s why I call this guilt bogus, because problems just don’t get solved this way.

Healthy Guilt

“I’m a good person, smart enough to make good choices. I messed up there, but this will teach me to do better.” You hang onto the guilt feeling as motivation to help you figure out where you went wrong, what you did wrong, what you should have done (and hope to do in the future) Once you’ve said all this to those you’ve harmed or disappointed, and taken actions to earn back their trust and make up for what you did wrong, you have no more need for the guilt as a teacher.

Your new motivation is love for others, love for yourself, and if you’re a believer, love for God. You don’t need to feel the guilt anymore. Save it for later, to motivate more character-building repair behaviors the next time you goof up.

In a nutshell, shame says “I’m messed up,” bogus guilt says “Because you messed up, I’m messed up,” and healthy guilt says “I messed up but I’m cleaning up my mess.” Only the last one solves problems and leaves the world a better place.

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About Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Shelbyville, KY, 502 633 2860.