Addicted to Guilt and Shame?

If you struggle with perfectionism, you might find yourself regularly getting trapped in guilt and shame holes. The perfectionist part of your brain thinks you are responsible for doing everything perfectly, and so when things go wrong, you can quickly jump to blaming and beating yourself up. You feel terrible about yourself, you want to hide and not talk to anyone. This feels awful. So why do we do it so much?

Turns out, guilt and shame are actually a little addictive, according to a new book published by New Harbinger. When you encounter a situation that seems stressful or dangerous, your brain wants you to “do something” to take care of the problem. When you take action to get rid of the stress or danger, the reward center of your brain kicks in and gives you a little hit of short-term relief. The problem is, your brain can perceive guilt or shame as “doing something.” So when you worry, ruminate, or blame yourself for something you think you did wrong, your brain perceives that as taking action, and you get a hit of short-term relief.

But guilt and shame aren’t the same as doing something. Most of the time, feeling guilty or worried isn’t actually productive. Shame is pretty much never productive. Even though your brain thinks these activities are helping, they really aren’t. Guilt and shame don’t actually do anything to solve problems or reduce stress long-term. They rarely inspire wise, effective action that solves whatever problem has arisen. They usually just keep you trapped in a hole. Despite the initial hit of short-term relief, they often lead to long-term problems like anxiety and depression.

What’s a better way? It starts with noticing what’s happening, awareness of the the hole you’re about to step into. When you feel the flush of shame rising up or the pressure of guilt and self-criticism bearing down on you, start by just naming what’s happening (like Sia sings, “here comes the shame”). Take a breath, feel your feet on the floor. Scan your experience. Is there another emotion underneath all that unproductive guilty-shamey noise? Do you feel sad, angry, scared? See if you can allow yourself to feel that core emotion that’s at the root of the shame.

Letting yourself feel an emotion from start to finish (and they all finish at some point, I promise no emotion lasts forever) can be extremely productive. When you let a feeling move through you, you are no longer using all your energy to try to suppress it or argue with it or change it. And you might find that the emotion brings with it some real wisdom about what action to take next — then you can actually do something, instead of just tricking your brain into addictive guilt and shame.