Shame – The Invisible Monster

What do guilt and shame have to do with each other and how might they be affecting your life?
According the shame researchers, guilt is what you feel when you do something bad and shame is what you feel when you are something bad.

Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW and author of I Thought It Was Me (But it Isn’t) speaks of shame as a silent epidemic. Shame is a deep topic with significant personal and social impacts. It is also largely a taboo topic. I will begin exploring shame in this pos, however, because shame is both a taboo topic and a silent epidemic, I will continue to develop the topic in sequential posts.

Three of the foremost experts on the subject of shame are Jane Middleton-Moz, John Bradshaw and more recently, Brené Brown. In her book, “Shame and Guilt – Masters of Disguise”, Jane Middleton-Moz explains the dynamics of shame for individuals and the far reaching implications of those dynamics. John Bradshaw author of two insightful books on shame – “Healing the Shame that Binds You” and “Homecoming” explores the dynamics facing adult children of alcoholics and shame-based families. Brown in her books on the subject signals a clarion call for recognizing the silent epidemic of shame in society and its pervasive destructiveness.

How does shame affect a life? Here is how one woman put it:

“For years I have called it fear, rage, anxiety, depression, struggling with myself, lack of focus, lack of direction. I called it everything but what it was, because I really did not know. In another sense, I did, but could not name it and I could not admit it. It masqueraded as ADD, impulsiveness, arrogance and anger. At times it appeared as passivity and shyness, other times it presented as a restless, relentless mind that zoomed around my internal universe like a mad comet hurtling through space.

It manifested as procrastination and being chronically late for things as well as never following through on anything I started or intended to do. It showed up as big talking and little doing, a persistent lack of commitment to anyone or anything – why risk failing when it seemed inevitable?

It appeared as high-sensitivity, which of course it was, an ever watchful nervous system patrolling. It was the promise of “someday” that never seemed to come and the fervent attempt to control an out of control world. I struggled with a desire for success and a relentless need to remain invisible and safe from the judgment of others who would surely judge me as I judged myself, fundamentally, hopelessly and fatally flawed – unlovable and worthless.

It was an internal struggle that was ripping me apart. For every successful step I took, I took two steps back to hide.”

This is the monster called shame and it is at the heart of nearly every self-destructive and addictive behavior there is.

Let me tell you why I believe you must understand what shame is and learn to speak it. You can only heal it by speaking of it and many therapists do not have a solid understanding of this subject. Some are actually blocked by their own shame and do not wish to bring up such a topic – I did say it was taboo. For you to heal from this, you will need to take charge like never before. This is easier once you understand what you are dealing with – this horrible, unspeakably dark feeling is shame.

I hope you find this helpful.


I ordered a Wayne Dyer classic some time ago – YOUR ERRONEOUS ZONES. The unassuming paperback arrived today. It has been a few weeks since I ordered it, so I’d forgotten all about it – my cyclone of a mind moves on fast! I opened the book, a thin paperback with a faded cover and age-yellow pages (so much for being LIKE NEW) and opened to a part about guilt. As the universe seems to do at times, what I needed to read appeared in front of me. The ensuing discussion about guilt – an emotion I thought I was doing a lot to avoid – kind of hit home and I realized that I needed to read this.

Let me share with you a summary of what Dr. Dyer has to say:

• Guilt is a strategy to avoid taking any effective, self-enhancing steps today by keep your focus on the past and what has already happened that you cannot change – ever.
• Guilt is a form of self-punishment and misleads you into believing you are taking action by continuous self-flagellation.
• Guilt is a means of escaping responsibility and avoiding the hard work of changing in the now.
• Guilt can be viewed as a form of penance in the hopes that if you feel bad enough, you will eventually be forgiven. Dyer calls it the prison mentality as inmates pay for their sins by feeling terrible.
• Guilt serves as a means to return to the relative safety of childhood, a secure period where others took care of you and made decisions for you. Once again, you are protected from taking charge of your own life.
• Guilt serves to transfer responsibility for your behavior. Takes the focus off you and puts it on others.
• Guilt can help you to win approval from others if you show how bad you feel. It’s a human way to try to fit in after wrong doing.
• Guilt can be an attempt to gain others pity. The desire for pity is indicative of a very low self-esteem. You would rather have people pity you than like or respect you.


1. View the past accurately as UNCHANGABLE. Recognize that guilt cannot change it and serves to prevent you from moving ahead.
2. Ask “What am I avoiding in the present by feeling this guilt?” What is it that you are afraid of?
3. Recognize that your values may not be the same as others. Here’s an example: Let’s say you leave the corporate world because it holds little value for you. You panic and feel guilty. Instead of moving forward, you simply agonize with guilt day after day after day effectively leaving yourself stuck and in danger of collapse. In such a case, you are merely punishing yourself for making a choice that honors your true values rather than the values you adopted from others.
4. Accept who you are.
5. Reconsider your values which may be different from your family, your friends, your coworkers etc. At the very least, they may have undergone a change from what they once were.
6. Assess the consequences of your behavior. Determine if it is working for you by giving you results you enjoy and want. If not, then guilt is again punishing you.
7. Defuse guilt by teaching others that they can do for themselves – you are actually empowering them by stopping co-dependent manipulation.
8. Take a stand against guilt by stepping out and or speaking up. For example, if you get lousy service in a restaurant – leave NO tip. You will be helping that server get powerful feedback. Don’t let guilt trick you into believing that the server will starve and/or the restaurant close unless you subsidize awful service – it’s a business not a charitable endeavor. You will be made to feel guilty by someone – guaranteed. Speak to the manager if possible, but reject the guilt. You are doing more to help this server and manager than rewarding failure ever could.

Some people would say that guilt is a useless emotion, I disagree. It is healthy to feel guilt when you have done something wrong not when you do something different i.e. step away from the herd. The biological purpose of these emotions is to bring you back in line with conventional norms to ensure your physical survival – your psychological survival is of no consequence here. That is why it can be so hard, because we feel torn in an internal struggle. Some people will actually change their values to avoid feeling guilty or to shift it on to the victim. It’s an energetic exchange in which the person who should feel guilty shifts it on to the victim. That’s for another day.

The problem with guilt is that while there are times when you should feel guilty so that you can stop and think about what you are doing and make amends, if necessary, right away. Toxic guilt is guilt that serves no purpose except to stay stuck as it disallows any constructive action. Acting out of guilt, it is impossible to construct a bright future; guilt is punishing and will continue a pointless, punishing cycle if not stopped.

In what ways is guilt present in your life? What steps can you take to minimize the role of guilt?