How Shame and Guilt Contribute to Anxiety and Depression

Teenagers experiencing anxiety and depression are particularly prone to being guilted out and to shame attacks. As a parent, you’re not immune to it either!

Brené Brown has 100% nailed the difference between shame and guilt with her statement,  “Guilt is when you have done something bad.  Shame is when you are bad.”  Guilt and shame are intertwined; we often feel guilty for feeling ashamed. 

For people experiencing mental illness, the emotion of shame is bigger than usual. Shame shows up because:

  • We are sick
  • We are a burden
  • We are not living our lives like we’re meant to
  • We don’t have a reason to feel like this when things are so much worse for others
  • We’re not coping (and everyone else is)

Self-criticism that is stuck-in-a-loop in our heads goes round and round, feeding on itself. As the loop grows stronger, it becomes more believable and moves itself into shame. And the shame spiral gets tighter and darker as we go over our thoughts of why we are such a bad person.

And as if this isn’t enough, at the same time, we also feel guilty for:

  • Being sick
  • Not coping
  • Having a child who is sick
  • Being a burden
  • Not living life like we’re meant to
  • Not having a reason to feel like this when things are so much worse for others …

Of course, we all need to deal with guilt. I’m not saying you get to do/say/be horrendous and then get off scot-free.

Choosing to look at the things you feel guilty about and make amends where needed is a courageous act.

Dealing with guilt is hard work; it feels scary, ugly, horrible and not so nice.  It can also be challenging, healing and empowering as you do the work to grow into a better person. There are so many ways to deal with guilt; all highly individual, entirely dependent on the situation and doable.  Some may be quick, others will probably take longer.  It’s your choice to: 

  1. Do the work.
  2. Do it thoroughly.  

How to Grow From It

One thing I would like to say about guilt is that when it is left untreated it becomes shame; you tell yourself you should be dealing with the guilt, but you don’t and that creates an opening for shame to creep in. Here’s an example: you feel guilty for not taking your kids to the park when the weather is great. After work you’re always tired, worn out and ready to head straight home for a round of dinner, bath & bed. Instead of noticing and then using the ‘working mother guilt’ to have a conversation with your kids about how everyone would benefit from some wind down time together at the park and “how could we make it work?”, you instead move to the more shameful idea of, “I’m not a good enough mother, because I don’t spend enough time with my kids after work.”  At the time, that might feel like a “that’s life” solution, but is it worth carrying the shame around? No way. Shame steals energy from your happiness and that is too big a price to pay. Ever.

Interestingly, guilt is like a nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right. If you listen to the things you are feeling guilty for you can start to change things. See guilt as the canary in the coal mine, it’s an early warning system that may well save your life, permanently changing your happiness and your vibe. Guilt is the opposite of being responsible. You can choose to listen to your guilt and let it lead you to a different way of life.

You deal with guilt by sitting with it, journaling about it; and being compassionate with yourself as you work through this process. You are holding your own precious heart in your hands. Do some forgiving, of others and of yourself. And when you are ready then start talking to others; apologising when you need to and taking actions to make things right if that’s what you need to do. And at the same time know that this is important, brave work you are doing.  

Which makes it even more important to treat yourself well; to speak kindly to yourself all the way through the process. To hold yourself with compassion and treat yourself like your own best friend.

And please, don’t hold onto the balloon that is labelled ‘Shame’. Choosing to go down that path is choosing to make everything so much harder to deal with when you have a core belief that says you are a bad person. Letting go of the shame gives you a chance to start dealing with the guilt.  By no means is letting go of shame letting yourself off the hook.  

Letting go of shame takes an enormous amount of courage. You have to make yourself vulnerable and share your stuff. Shame thrives in secrecy. It grows in silence, taking its energy from your perceived idea of what others are going to think about you, feel about you and say about you when they know about the thing you are hiding. In your mind the shame is enormous.  It’s dark and horrific and raw and it makes you into a monster, broken by life and not worthy of happiness. By trusting another person to share your shame you are bringing it out of the darkness and into the light. Where it can be seen.  

And when you can see it you get to start dealing with it.

And of course, if you need a hand to do this reach out. The longer you leave it, the harder it is to fix.

Sign up for First Steps

A series of four lessons that cover:

  • Panic Attacks:  How to help if your teen is having panic attacks
  • Safety at home:  Steps to take to keep your teen safe in their own home if they are suicidal
  • Self harm:  What to do if you find out your teen has been self harming
  • Building bridges:  Keeping your teen in contact with the rest of the world

The lessons are delivered daily with a workbook



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