Guilt and shame are usually viewed as negative emotions. They make us feel uncomfortable and remind of us of our shortcomings. However, like other negative emotions, they provide us with valuable information. It is only when the severity of our guilt or shame becomes extreme or when our responses become destructive that these emotions become harmful. Otherwise, they perform a valuable service. In this blog series, we are discussing the value of negative emotions as discussed by David H. Barlow, a research psychologist, and his colleagues in their book the Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders: Workbook.
According to Barlow and his colleagues, guilt is an emotion that signals to us that we failed to live up to society’s expectations. For example, we might experience feelings of guilt if we borrow money from friends or relatives and neglect to pay them back. Feelings of guilt can motivate us to right this wrong by paying our debts. Guilt can promote positive and adaptive behavior by motivating us to fulfill societal expectations.
Barlow and his colleagues described shame as an emotion experienced when we fail to meet our own personal standards leading us to feel devalued as a person. For example, we might experience shame if we borrow money and are unable to repay our loved ones leading us to feel less than. Shame can lead us to withdraw from our relationships, which can help us to think about how to best move forward in our lives.
Shame can also be associated with past abuse. According to Barlow and colleagues, it is possible that moments of abuse can invoke feelings of shame as a defense mechanism against an abuser. Body language associated with shame, such as tearfulness and slumped shoulders, can communicate submissiveness, which might prevent the abuser from prolonging the attack. Unfortunately, feelings of shame can last long after the abuse has ended.
Guilt and shame are unpleasant experiences, to say the least. Yet, they help us to fulfill standards set by society as well as by ourselves. Furthermore, in some situations shame might be our only defense, as imperfect as it might be.
If you are interested in learning more about the value of negative emotions please continue reading this series and or contact us for a free phone consultation.
Author Dr. Jason von Stietz specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Sport/Performance Psychology in Torrance, CA.