There's a lot of talk about guilt these days - guilt feelings, neurotic guilt, guilting, guilt tripping and so on. With lots of talk comes lots of confusion, especially in popular psychology. Sometimes it seems like the function of the field of psychology is to eliminate guilt. Is guilt ever healthy? Is guilt a mental illness? An excuse? What exactly is guilt anyway?
First of all guilt is not a feeling, contrary to much of what is said and written today. Guilt is a status, a position. I'm guilty if I've violated the law (or my values, or someone's rights, etc.) even if I feel fine about it. I can be ignorant of my violation but I'm still guilty. I can rationalize, justify, and ignore my guilt - but still be guilty.
The good news is that Guilt inevitably has a concrete resolution, something I can do. I can repent, confess, apologize, make restitution, etc. There is almost always something I can do to deal with my guilt - if I'm motivated. (ie: if I "feel" like it).
"Shame" is a feeling, and it feels bad. Shame feels dirty, defective, low...shameful. When I feel shame, I want to get ridd of that feeling. Shame motivates. Shame can drive people to do drastic things. Addictions are often attempts to medicate the pain of shame. Chronic anxiety problems are often shame-base. Shame leads us to act.
Ideally, guilt and shame work together. We call that "conviction". When I've done something wrong, I feel badly so I deal with my guilt to relieve my shame - it's a good system. When shame is related to guilt, it's a sign of emotional health. But, just as guilt can be seperated from shame, (rationalizing, justifying, etc.) shame can be seperated from guilt. Sometimes we may feel badly when we haven't done anything wrong. That's a tough place to be, because without guilt, shame is hard to resolve - there's no action to take to make it right - it just feels bad.
When shame is experienced apart from guilt, it is a learned response. We weren't born feeling shame, somewhere we were taught shame, usually in childhood or adolescence. It was given to us and we accepted it.
Resolving shame often involves exploring it's source. Discovering where it was learned and separating that learning experience from our daily life.
Letting-go of a pattern of shame isn't easy and it isn't quick. It is, however well worth the work. It has the potential of changing how we approach life and relationships. As one person put it: "It's like getting out of jail - I feel free for the first time in my life".