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