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Guilt and Shame: Using Discomfort as a Tool for Growth

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

As a world and society, we are walking through a hard time right now. Life is different. There are legitimate fears to consider when making even the simplest of decisions (i.e. going to the grocery store or hugging a family member) and the very structures of our society are being rightfully questioned. Marginalized individuals are speaking up against discrimination and challenging both individuals and law makers to reexamine unconscious biases. We’re being forced to take a pause to determine where we fit into this puzzle and what this means for us.

If you’re feeling uncertain, nervous, confused, sad, guilty, or a sense of shame for not doing enough, you are not alone. We are in a space of liminality---the unknown zone between what was known and familiar and an undetermined future. This is a space of great discomfort, yet also huge possibilities to restructure our goals and priorities. As a society we are collectively experiencing an upheaval of emotions. So what do we DO with these uncomfortable emotions??

First, it is important to differentiate between guilt and shame. Guilt is when we feel badly about something we have done or a way we have acted, and want to make changes so as to behave more in line with our values. Guilt can be a useful experience to prevent us from causing harm to our self and others. Because guilt and anxiety are very uncomfortable feelings, our first response is typically to push these feelings away through distraction, numbing, or avoidance. Who wants to sit in this awful feeling? (Not me!!...Is that a new episode of Queer Eye??) Unfortunately these short-term tools don’t actually work in the long term. Often, we engage in unhealthy behaviors to get rid of the icky feeling, resultantly robbing us of the chance to grow. Guilt is actually an incredible tool to develop insight into your own values. Guilt tells us “I am not a bad person although I feel badly. I have learned from what I’ve done and given this information I will act differently next time”.

Shame is the experience of “I am bad” vs. “I did something bad”. Shame becomes toxic when we have repeated experiences of abuse, pain, neglect, or a devaluation of our thoughts and feelings without reparative and restorative experiences. These painful experiences often lead us to develop a core belief that something must be wrong with us to be treated this way. We believe we are bad, unlovable, unable to change, or unworthy of respect. In therapy we frequently see clients struggling with shame. They may unconsciously recreate situations to affirm these negative beliefs about themselves that leads them to be re-victimized. The discomfort and tyranny of shame can keep us stuck in unhealthy patterns of self-harm, disordered eating, withdrawal, and lashing out at others to try to numb away the pain.

The good news is that this is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot. Again and again in our offices we witness shame transformed into self-assurance, pride, and resilience. It is possible to challenge and replace negative self-beliefs, develop effective coping skills, and experience healing relationships These are core skills we work on in therapy through a combination of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral interventions. By walking courageously through the discomfort, you can emerge on the other side with awareness of one’s own strength and capacity to enact positive change.

When you are sitting in moments of discomfort, perhaps it is an invitation to learn from your body what really matters to you. What actions feel out of line with your authentic self? How can you take steps towards your values? What sort of person do you want to nourish and cultivate? What can you do today that your future self will be proud of?

If these are experiences that resonate with you and ideas you’re interested in exploring more of, please reach out to us for a free consultation at or calling 760-456-7462.

Carrie Cueto LMFT #111543

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