Guilt & Shame–Uninvited Guests

One of my posts earlier this year talked about struggling with setbacks.  Life keeps giving me good post material.  Not all that long ago, I tripped over my own feet and broke a few ribs.  The ribs were painful, but not nearly as painful as feeling like I had to explain why I couldn’t do simple activities.  I felt like I needed to apologize for my slow pace and my lack of energy.

My experiences during my rib recovery have reminded me of a theme I’ve noticed–in blog posts, in tweetchats, and in my sessions. I’ve noticed people talking about guilt and shame.  These are not folks who have been committing crimes or deliberately hurting others.  Nope.  They are people with a diagnosis of cancer, or diabetes, or lupus, or postpartum depression.  They are people who have suffered losses–in relationships, or jobs, or in their health.  And in addition to the struggles that they face with their illness or their loss, they are drowning in guilt and shame.

Suffering, Guilt and Shame: Unhappy Partners

“I feel guilty that I’m alive and others haven’t made it.”

“I feel ashamed that I failed to get better.”

“I feel guilty that my family has had to go through this with me.”

“I feel ashamed that I couldn’t stay healthy.”

“I feel guilty that I have not been able to be as active as I want to at work/church/school/family life.”

“I feel ashamed when I can’t do something–I don’t look sick.”

“I feel guilty that I need help from others.”

I am guessing that, if you suffer from a serious physical or mental illness–or a short-term injury or loss–that many of these sentences sound familiar. I have noticed that many of my most capable patients really struggle with the vulnerability that accompanies suffering.  I think that a piece of this is that, when you are accustomed to being the helpful one, it is startling and painful to be in a place where you need help.

I think that another level of vulnerability is that a lot of suffering isn’t visible, and so we feel that we have to explain or justify our pain.  Broken ribs are intensely painful–and totally invisible.  Depression can wipe you out–and leave you looking healthy and capable.  It’s probably not an accident that my most popular posts are the ones discussing invisible pain and reminding us that everyone faces some sadness.

Kindness Starts With You

I wrote those posts to accomplish two goals.  First, I wanted to acknowledge the existence of invisible pain, and the challenges of acknowledging it. Second, I wanted to encourage compassion for one another–since we can never really know what burdens someone else is carrying.

I have realized something recently, though.  The kindness and compassion that counteract guilt and shame need to come from inside as well as out.  You may need to wrestle your own shame demons so that you can be open to the love and support that others want to show you.  So, this week, I’d like to offer some alternative statements to the ones above.

“Everyone faces some challenge.  This is my challenge to face.”

“This is really hard and scary, but I did not cause my illness.”

“People love me and it is okay to let them show me that love.”

“It is okay to be sad, scared, angry, hurt, or confused.  I am allowed to have all of my feelings.”

“I may have to re-organize my priorities while I cope with this illness.”

“This is not my fault. I did not cause this suffering.”

If you have been struggling with shame and guilt–particularly if they are interfering with your ability to receive support from others–I hope that you try a few of these new statements out.  If you have a particularly effective “anti-guilt” mantra, I hope that you share it in the comments.


Image Credit: Shame by PinkMoose via Flickr
Image Credit: Guilt by durera_toujours via Flickr


10 thoughts on “Guilt & Shame–Uninvited Guests

  1. WOW– that one hit me in the face Ann! I struggle with guilt, shame, and the element of I “deserve” the illness. One of the assignments my own therapist gave me was to speak to others with chronic illness and ask them if they felt that they “deserved” it. 2/3 of the people I asked– admitted that yes, indeed they did feel they deserved their illness or it was “expected”. The exercise helped me to see that the “feeling” I was having was not unique and was , in fact, common. Seemingly for me- in my sessions, if the therapist can “explain” concretely to me, WHY I am feeling that way or this way– I deal so much better with it. Almost like, give me an ‘explanation’ or an ‘instruction book’ of my feelings and I am able to cope a lot better….thanks Ann… ((: Kim

    1. Kim,

      That is a fantastic exercise. I think that shame silences and isolates us, and anything that we can do to fight back against that is important and powerful. I’m glad that it helped.


  2. Ann,
    This is such a thoughtful post and you are completely right. Those of us who’ve had a cancer diagnosis struggle with feelings of guilt and shame at times for all the reasons you mention and more. And invisible pain, whether physical or emotional, still needs acknowledgment. I really like your “alternative statements.” Compassion is such a gift – whether we are giving it to ourselves or to others. Thanks for this post.

    1. Nancy,

      I often think that one of the most important components of therapy is the practice of compassion–first together and then independently. Thanks for your feedback–I value your voice.


  3. I have often said the difficult part of “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the loving ourselves part. It is often difficult to treat ourselves in loving ways. Thanks for this great reminder, Ann.

    1. JoAnn,

      I have used a variety of that statement in many sessions. I also fall back on it to remind myself to do good self-care.


  4. Wow, Ann, this post is right on. It’s amazing how much guilt and shame we can put on ourselves. Where do we learn to treat ourselves this way? For me, in addition to alternative statements like those you gave above, I find strength and self-forgiveness in my faith. The song that comes to mind is “He Touched Me.” Here’s the first verse:

    Shackled by a heavy burden
    ‘Neath a load of guilt and shame
    Then the hand of Jesus touched me
    And now I am no longer the same

    Of course, sometimes folks can feel more guilt and shame because of their religious practices… I guess that’s a topic for another day. Thank you for the food for thought!

    1. Rachelle,

      Thanks for the lyrics–it’s fun to have music therapists in the community because you always have a great perspective. If we can solve the issue of why so many of us struggle to give ourselves compassion, we can change the world.


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