Dealing with Feelings of Guilt and Shame When You're Depressed

Thursday, February 1 2018 Michelle Sedas

Feelings of guilt and shame can overwhelm you when you’re depressed and further harm your mental health. Here are three tips to reduce these feelings.

Feelings of guilt and shame can be intense when we are depressed. Our perception of the past becomes skewed and these guilty and shameful feelings can become such a burden that we feel overwhelmed, unable to see realistically. I’ve spent some time contemplating why we, who battle depression, often feel overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame and what we can do about it.

To paraphrase Brene Brown, guilt is about our behavior; shame is about ourselves. Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.”1

It’s okay to feel guilty when we’ve truly done something that violates our code of ethics. After recognizing and exploring this feeling of guilt, we can make amends by apologizing and correcting our behavior. In this sense, we should welcome guilt.

Excessive Feelings of Guilt and Shame Are Often a Part of Depression

It’s when guilt becomes excessive or is not based on something we actually did wrong that we can get ourselves into trouble. Multiple times a day, I will feel guilty about dumb things I’ve done in my past. I’ll recall a random conversation from seven years ago where I hurt someone’s feelings or I’ll remember a stupid thing I did in the fourth grade. I’ll sometimes even feel guilty for the behaviors of others, thinking I should have stopped them from their wrongdoings.

When I’m feeling more depressed, and because of my obsessive thoughts, I will ruminate on those past events and the constant dwelling will turn my excessive guilty thoughts to thoughts of shame. I become immobilized, and my day is completely thrown off (Getting Through a Day Paralyzed by Anxiety and Depression). This, in turn, leads to more negative thinking and, soon, I’ve spiraled deeper into the pit of depression.

Three Ways to Reduce Feelings of Guilt and Shame

  1. Recognize feelings of guilt and shame are counter-productive. If you’re feeling unreasonably guilty or full of shame, recognize that this is not productive. Remind yourself that you’re being overly self-critical. Be aware of the fact that, because of your depression, your thinking is skewed. No one deserves to feel plagued by guilt and shame, and this thinking will only make things worse.
  2. Learn to forgive and accept imperfection. This one is so difficult for me, but one I’m trying to work on. I tell myself that I can continue to feel guilty about every mistake I’ve ever made in my life, or I can choose acceptance and forgiveness. I can embrace imperfection. With my obsessive thinking, the memories of past mistakes will still intrude, but I’m now trying to accept that, because I’m human, I will never be perfect., and that’s okay.
  3. Use mindfulness to disengage with your feelings of guilt and shame. Because of my obsessive thinking, I’ve learned that it’s helpful when I stop engaging with these thoughts completely and instead use mindfulness to help with depression. While the memories will still come, I try to recognize that I’m thinking them, verbally say “breathe," return to my breath, and shift my focus to what I’m doing at the moment.

Excessive feelings of guilt and shame can be detrimental to your mental health. If you’ve tried to overcome feelings of excessive guilt and shame, and are unable to do so on your own, please seek help from a trusted professional.

Sources:

  1. TED: Ideas Worth Sharing. Brown, Brene. Listening to Shame.

Author: Michelle Sedas

Michelle is a wife and a mother of two children. She is the author of two books and the coauthor of a third. Her book, Welcome The Rain, will inspire you to see beyond life's storms. Find Michelle on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and her personal blog.

View all posts by Michelle Sedas.

Dealing with Feelings of Guilt and Shame When You're Depressed

JohnT
says:
May, 22 2018 at 12:52 am
Guilt and shame are definitely a waste of time and counterproductive. Not easy to rid of though. Mindfulness helps only if you allow it in and rid of the negativity. Exercise is a must. Exercise helps clear the mind. The more I jog the better I feel. Negativity, anxiety, and depression have a harder time settling in when I exercise. When I don't it comes in very strong. Very strong.
Michelle Sedas
says:
May, 22 2018 at 12:52 am
Hello John,
This is an excellent point! Exercise does always seem to help. I haven’t been exercising as much lately, and I need to. Thank you for the reminder!
Michelle Sedas
Bob Castle
says:
May, 22 2018 at 12:52 am
Yes! Thanks for a very good post! Guilt and shame are so destructive!
Michelle Sedas
says:
May, 22 2018 at 12:52 am
Hello Bob,
Thank you so much for your comment.
--Michelle Sedas
Co-author "Coping with Depression" blog

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