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Guilt and Shame: Are They Worth Talking About?

Dr. Lisa Finlay
Director of International Services, Headington Institute, 2015.


In a previous post on moral injury, I talked about guilt and shame as being “messy” emotions because they can be uncomfortable, persistent, and complicated feelings. Here’s another reason why they are complicated: they can be hugely unfair. For instance, in the face of tragic outcomes, sometimes people will blame themselves for not preventing something that they never could have prevented. Figuring out whether you’re being fair to yourself can be hard to do on your own, especially in the case of moral injury. This is why it can be so helpful to talk about things you feel guilt or shame about with people you trust–friends, family members, mentors, spiritual leaders, or counselors.

The “trust” part of “people you trust” is really important. You need to be careful about who you discuss guilt and shame with, since these emotions expose some of our core doubts and weaknesses. At the same time, avoiding all intimacy because you think no one can relate is sometimes the most painful consequence of moral injury.

If you aren’t sure whether you can really trust another person with the things that make you feel most vulnerable, try to identify your concern as specifically as you can. Do you want to be sure that you won’t be judged a certain way? Or that the person won’t tell others? Perhaps you need to know that the person will believe your account in the first place. If you can narrow your concern from a global distrust down to one or two key concerns, you can “test the waters” by having a conversation about the concerns first. For example, if you say to someone, “I want to talk to you about something, but I worry that you’ll see me as weak” you can usually get a good sense of whether it is safe to proceed by their reaction. A trustworthy person will take your concern seriously and will not pressure you to share anything before you’re ready.

The other piece to keep in mind when choosing who to talk with is the ethical or religious framework that is important to you. At the root of emotions like guilt and shame are judgments about right and wrong, so you want to talk with people who can dialogue at a meaningful level, utilizing language and wisdom from within your tradition or worldview. Of course, it can be intimidating to approach a spiritual exemplar or religious authority figure when we are feeling a lot of guilt or shame. I think the worst part of these emotions is that they can make us feel unworthy of acceptance or forgiveness. Some people feel guilt and then tell themselves they don’t belong in communities that promote love, peace, and justice. However, I don’t know of a single religion or spiritual path that doesn’t support some form of reflection, repentance, and forgiveness. For many people, healing from moral injury really starts when they allow for the possibility that they can be forgiven, and return to a community of faith or spiritual practice.

So are guilt and shame worth talking about? Absolutely. Sharing vulnerably with others builds intimacy, and sitting with difficult emotions is easier to do when we have good company. Plus, getting feedback on how we view a situation or ourselves can help ensure that we are being both fair and staying true to our deepest values.

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