Shame, Guilt And The Way Back

I am not presently seeing any life-coaching clients. It’s a good thing too, because I have been deeply involved in coaching with three of my friends who are going through issues in their personal romantic lives.

These people are close to me and I know will be reading this blog. In fact, they are the primary reason I am writing it.

What I am about to say applies to you too. It applies to me as well. I have been there and may be again in time. You have likely also been there and if you haven’t, you will be.  No human escapes these lessons.


When I am “coaching” friends, it is not really coaching.  It is more listening.  They are coaching me as much as I am coaching them.

A few weeks ago I had conversations with a few friends back to back within hours of each other. I had an email exchange from one and then got a call from the other.  The difference in the two conversations was so striking I knew I had to write about it.

In the email my friend said something like this, “I am just completely fucked up. I am not a good friend. I did terrible unforgivable things to people in my life.” This theme is something I heard repeatedly from another good friend of mine over the last four years, and here was another person close to me saying the same thing.

My other friend who I talked to said this, “I fucked up again Jade. I don’t know why I keep making these choices. I am so sad. And I am so incredibly disappointed in myself.” Again, something you commonly hear when the shit hits the fan in people’s lives.

I felt bad for both friends.  When someone is in pain I have a natural desire to want to help, but there was more going on here. I had, and still have, some serious concerns about one of these friends and told them as much.

Can you see which of my two friends is in more direct need and in a more dangerous and destructive psyche?

Shame versus Guilt

The wording I zeroed in on was “I am just completely fucked up” as compared to “I fucked up.”  When you are in the world of coaching you catch these types of distinctions quickly and you understand their ramifications.

Guilt is normal and common.  You can recover from it. It also has some utility.  You feel guilty and it can be a powerful motivator for change.

Shame is normal too, but not as common. Shame degrades our sense of self. It is a zero sum game and it is difficult to come back from. The motivation is not there.  You feel helpless and hopeless.

Can you tell which friend is suffering from guilt and which from shame?

Guilt is “I did bad.”  Shame is “I am bad.”  Guilt is felt about a particular choice.  Shame felt about yourself, there is no choice.

The friend who said, “I am fucked up,” is in shame.  The friend who said, “I fucked up,” is feeling guilt.

Shame is one thousand times more detrimental and deep than guilt.  Guilt is more easy to correct.  Shame takes a lot of work.

The reason shame is so concerning to healthcare professionals, counselors and coaches is because it is harder to deal with and is believed to be a jumping off point to depression, addiction, self-hate and suicide.

The universal want/desire/need of every human on the planet is belonging and love.  Those in shame feel that they are not worthy of love on some level.

If that last sentence really sunk in and you are anything like me, you probably just felt the bottom drop out of your stomach. It is heart wrenching to hear this kind of talk from someone you care for. You see how wonderful they are, and they only see how unworthy they are.

The three faces of shame

When someone is in shame it is a terrible place to be and as such they will use any number of psychological distraction, denial and deflection techniques.  I want to cover the three most common ways people do this which I am taking from the work of Linda Hartling (link to her studies HERE).

This is important for you to know, because those in shame lash out and avoid. If you don’t know what is happening you may not recognize this as shame and bail on someone in deep need of your love and support.

When in shame, people will deal with it in one of these three ways:

  1. Avoid:  This is where the person in shame crawls down into a hole and wants to stay there. They will often disengage with others, distance themselves from friends and isolate themselves in general. If you have ever watched in pain as someone close to you begins to alienate you, their family and everyone else, you know how difficult this is to be a part of. Often this person will have shown an avoidant attachment style to begin with and the shame simply magnifies this tendency.
  2. Seek Out:  This is where the person becomes more needy and engages in people pleasing. They can become smothering and try to do all they can to get back into the good graces of the people they believe they have lost their standing with. This can manifest with those close to them or everyone. Often, these people have anxious attachment styles to begin with and the shame magnifies the issue.
  3. Lash Out: This is where people lash out in anger and cruelty.  They fight shame with shame.  If you have ever had someone in your life that attacks with such cutting and cruel remarks it takes your breath away, you are likely dealing with someone in deep shame. This is where part of the “cruelty culture” comes from and is just another symptom of the isolation of shame.

Obviously, these reactions to shame are destructive and corrosive to meaningful relationships.  Often the shaming event is not what is most damaging to a person’s life. The reactions to shame can be like psychological aftershocks that tear apart relationships and further degrade self-worth.

How can we deal with it?

Emotional Resilience

We humans are telling stories about ourselves and others all of the time. Guilt and shame are two, among many, that we humans spin. Our ability to rewrite our stories is directly related to our resilience.

Resilience, the ability to bounce back from pain, failure, rejection and emotional hurt is what those in shame are lacking. That is a scary proposition for anyone who is feeling shame.

I love how Brene Brown described this in her Ted Talk on the subject.  She says, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

The VC and the GC

One of the most powerful realizations is that the events that cause the most shame in people’s lives are also some of the most common. This is a secret those of us who work in the healthcare and life coaching field know well, but the rest of the world is ignorant too.

Cheating, lying, gambling, adultery, addiction, and the list goes on. These things are common and normal human issues. Common and normal does not make them right, but you will be hard pressed to find someone in the world who has not done, experienced or knows someone who has done or experienced these things.

Even if these things have not been experienced directly, all of us know what shame feels like because we get a taste of it as kids.  Whether it was an experience of wetting your bed as a child, being teased on the playground at recess, being picked last for your sports team or asking a “dumb” question in school.  There is likely a time where you experienced a small taste of shame.

Understanding that humans often “sin” and knowing what shame “feels like,” are two key ingredients to attacking it.


I talk a lot in my work about the VC (victim culture) and the GC (growth or gratitude culture). These two types show themselves prominently when it comes to shame.

GC people see it as circumstances, poor choices or bad luck. They don’t get stuck in shame and have the ability to say “I fucked up.  I will do better.”

VC people have a tendency to react in one of the three ways above.  They avoid, they cling or they lash out with cruelty or blame. Behind these reactions is a different belief.  One of that they are broken, fucked up, unworthy or bad.

The VC are the most in need of empathy, the shame killer.

Empathy to the rescue

I believe empathy is the greatest social skill a human can have. And it can be learned.  If you are going to help yourself, or others, out of shame, you need to understand empathy.

Simply stated empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is the feeling of being able to imagine what others are feeling and convey that to them. It is the “me too” experience.

Empathy means we can hear a person’s story, see the world through their eyes and bring a non-judgmental understanding to the conversation. We convey to them that we “get it,” and are there to create a space for them to feel human and understood.

When we can create this compassionate understanding space, shame begins to fall away.  The more we do it, the more the person can model this in their own self-talk.

The skills of empathy 

There are several psychological “skills” to learn to develop empathy and kill shame.  The goal, as Brene Brown says, “is to turn someones shame into empathy, to turn their fear into courage, their blame to compassion and their disconnection to connection.”

Emapthy has four key behaviors defined by the research of Theresa Wiseman.  If you would like to read this research it is available online for free HERE. I go through these so that you can understand what you must bring to the table with shame.

  1. See The World As Others See It. This skill is critical for empathy, but many get this confused.  It is not required that you have been through the exact same thing. What is required is that you know what shame is and can see from their perspective why they view the world the way they do.
  2. Be Non Judgmental. This is about being objective. Realizing that the other person is human and as such suffers all the same dysfunctions and shortcomings of the rest of us. Holding a place of non-judgement is critical to empathy.
  3. Understand Another’s Feelings. This is embodied by the expression, “I feel you.” You are able to sense their shame, feel it with them and get why it is there. This does not mean you have to feel exactly what they feel when they are feeling, just that you get the feeling based on based experience. It is important to make the clear distinction between sympathy and empathy here. Empathy is “me too.”  Sympathy is, “i can only imagine…you poor thing.” Those in shame don’t need pity, they need understanding. Pity often makes shame worse.
  4. Communicate. The final piece is being able to communicate that you “get them,”, “feel them,” and don’t judge them. This is like giving them a place of reprieve.  A feeling that they are not alone and that you are there for them.

A real life story

Let me drive empathy home for you real quick with a true story from my clinical practice. Inside of a several month period this client gambled away thousands of dollars, got thrown in jail for fighting, found out his wife was in love with another man and was in danger of losing his prestigious well paying job. To bring empathy into this situation I did the following:

Saw the world as he saw it.  I can get it.  I understand what it is like to be a man. The pressure of needing to have it all together all the time. To be tough. To always have the money and the power and the control to do the right thing. I could see clearly the pressure he was under. As a man I know these pressures well.

Be non-judgmental.  I have cheated and I have been cheated on in my life. I have been irresponsible with money.  I have had disappointments and fears around money and career. I have had hurt and despair over romantic relationships. He is human and I understand that we all have our own crazy dysfunctions. I have things in my life I am deeply embarrassed about. I don’t judge him.  We all have our shit. I remain objective.

Understand his feelings.  I have not had all the exact experiences of him, but I don’t need to. I know what humiliation, rejection embarrassment and shame feels like.  I have had tinges of these feelings throughout my life and am sure to experience them again.  They are horrible.  I feel him.

Communicate to him. I say, “Trust me, I see the pressure you are under. As men it is difficult to feel any escape from it. You are human and like me, like all of us, you have your own fucked up dysfunctions. Trust me, I have mine too. All humans must deal with this stuff. I have had my own embarrassments and feelings of being ashamed of my actions and of rejection. I feel you. You are not alone in this and there is nothing “wrong with you.”

I am authentic.  I mean what I say.  I care and I really do empathize with him.  He feels that and it opens him up.  He feels less alone, less isolated. He breaks his silence even more, shares and talks more. This is the beginning of moving out of shame.

The redemption story

The final fix is in the story we will write.  We humans are always “writing stories” in our heads.  They are what we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world. These stories run our lives.

The shame story is that we are bad, unworthy and undeserving. Often we write these stories when we are young without being consciously aware and they stay with us.  Shame writes a tale that we are less than, bad, unworthy of love and that we are incapable of being any different.

The redemption story is one of turning shame into empathy and turning the shame experience into a catalyst for personal growth and change. This comes directly from the stoic philosophy and can best be summed up by the saying, “the obstacle is the way.”

At this point you reframe shame and create a new story out of it. You cheated, you lied?  So write a story of being honest and in your integrity and modeling that for your children.  You created havoc and pain through poor choices? Fix it by tunring shame to guilt and guilt to motivation to treat people with dignity and respect.

It is impossible to know day without the context of light. Likewise, it is impossible to shine our own light without being exposed to our darkness.

Final Thoughts

In the story above, this man decided to quit his job so he could be closer to his kids. He turned his focus into being the best dad he could be and redefined meaning in his life from one of pleasure (girls) and money (high end job, gambling, etc) to one of family.  His new romantic relationship is stronger than any he has ever had before. He loves his children. He is more honest and his kids have an authentic, communicative role model.  He is more open.  He is a better communicator.

There is no more powerful story than the redemption story, but that starts with climbing out of shame and realizing that you always have a choice as to what you do with your pain.  You can double down on the hurt and avoid, people please or attack.  Or you can rise up from shame and be someone better than you ever were, or could have been without it.


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