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Understanding Guilt and Shame: How Therapy Can Help

Guilt and shame are two of the most common emotions experienced by human beings. Although they are often used interchangeably, guilt and shame are actually different emotions. Guilt is the feeling that arises when we do something that violates our moral code, while shame is the feeling of being fundamentally flawed or defective as a person. Both emotions can be difficult to cope with, but therapy can help individuals understand, process, and ultimately overcome these feelings.

What is Guilt and Shame?

Guilt and shame are emotions that are commonly experienced by human beings. Guilt is an emotion that arises when we feel we have done something wrong or violated our moral code. It can be a helpful emotion, as it can help us understand when we have acted inappropriately and motivate us to make amends. However, excessive or prolonged guilt can be damaging to our mental health and lead to feelings of shame.

Shame is a more complex emotion than guilt, as it involves feelings of being fundamentally flawed or defective as a person. Shame can arise from a variety of sources, such as childhood experiences, societal messages, and personal experiences. Shame can be incredibly painful and lead to feelings of low self-esteem, isolation, and depression.

Types of Guilt and Shame

There are different types of guilt and shame that individuals can experience, including:

  • Survivor guilt: This is the feeling of guilt that arises when we survive a traumatic event while others do not.
  • Cultural guilt: This is the feeling of guilt that arises from being part of a group or culture that has a history of wrongdoing.
  • Internalized shame: This is the feeling of shame that arises when we internalize negative messages about ourselves from others.
  • Shame related to mental health: This is the feeling of shame that arises from having a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.

Causes of Guilt and Shame

There are a variety of causes of guilt and shame, including:

  • Childhood experiences: Our early childhood experiences, such as feeling neglected or mistreated, can contribute to feelings of shame and guilt later in life.
  • Societal messages: The messages we receive from society, such as unrealistic beauty standards or gender roles, can contribute to feelings of shame.
  • Trauma: Traumatic experiences, such as physical or emotional abuse, can contribute to feelings of guilt and shame.
  • Mental health conditions: Mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, can contribute to feelings of guilt and shame.

How Therapy Can Help

Therapy can be an effective tool for individuals struggling with guilt and shame. Here are some ways therapy can help:

  • Providing a safe space to process emotions: Therapy provides a safe, non-judgmental space for individuals to explore and process their emotions.
  • Identifying and challenging negative thought patterns: Therapy can help individuals identify negative thought patterns and challenge them with more positive and realistic thoughts.
  • Developing coping skills: Therapy can teach individuals coping skills, such as mindfulness and relaxation techniques, to manage their emotions.
  • Building self-esteem: Therapy can help individuals build their self-esteem and self-worth, which can combat feelings of shame.

Types of Therapy for Guilt and Shame

There are several types of therapy that can help individuals experiencing guilt and shame. Here are some examples:

  1. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): This type of therapy focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns that lead to guilt and shame. It helps individuals to recognize and challenge their negative self-talk and develop a more positive and realistic perspective.
  2. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT is a mindfulness-based therapy that aims to help individuals accept and make peace with their thoughts and feelings, including guilt and shame. It helps individuals to identify their values and make meaningful changes in their lives, even in the presence of difficult emotions.
  3. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a type of therapy that is often used to treat trauma-related guilt and shame. It involves a structured process of recalling traumatic events while simultaneously engaging in specific eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation. This can help to process and release difficult emotions associated with the trauma.
  4. Psychodynamic Therapy: This type of therapy focuses on exploring the unconscious roots of guilt and shame, often tracing them back to early childhood experiences. Through this exploration, individuals can gain insight into the underlying causes of their emotions and work to resolve them.
  5. Narrative Therapy: Narrative therapy helps individuals to reframe their experiences and develop a new narrative about their lives. It involves exploring the stories individuals tell themselves about their experiences, including those that lead to feelings of guilt and shame, and creating new, more empowering narratives.

Regardless of the type of therapy, the goal is to help individuals process and release feelings of guilt and shame in a healthy and productive way. Therapy provides a safe and supportive environment for individuals to explore and work through these difficult emotions.


In conclusion, guilt and shame are complex emotions that can have a significant impact on an individual's mental health and well-being. While some degree of guilt and shame is a normal part of the human experience, excessive and persistent feelings of guilt and shame can be detrimental to one's mental and physical health. It is important for individuals struggling with these emotions to seek professional help, such as therapy, to better understand the root causes of their guilt and shame and learn effective coping strategies.

Therapy can help individuals identify and challenge their negative self-talk, reframe their thoughts, and develop healthier ways of coping with guilt and shame. Through techniques such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, mindfulness-based therapies, and psychodynamic therapy, individuals can begin to heal from their guilt and shame and regain a sense of self-worth and self-compassion.

If you or someone you know is struggling with guilt and shame, No Fear Counselling is here to help. Our team of experienced and compassionate therapists can provide a safe and supportive space for you to explore your emotions and work towards healing. Contact us today to schedule an appointment at one of our convenient locations across British Columbia.

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