Transform Guilt & Shame Into Discernment 

 February 2, 2023

By  Kristin Rivas

If you've got a bad case of the "should've", "could've", "would've's"... Thoughts on repeat saying "If only I'd done ____ instead!" - or as Zig Ziglar would say "stinkin thinkin", pay close attention! Because beating yourself up doesn't do anyone any good. Guilt and shame, in other words, are worse than useless.

When we wallow in guilt and shame, self destructive patterns are likely to occur. Such as depression, addiction, self harm, and self sabotage. This will likely cause even greater amounts of harm to ourselves and others. Additional pain will be caused that would have been avoided if we'd taken steps to recover our self worth, integrity, discernment, etc.

The following information, journaling exercise, and suggested next steps can help you stop negative thought loops related to guilt and shame. 

How You Can Transform Guilt & Shame Into Something More Helpful...

Guilt and shame can transform into discernment and confidence whenever we truly realize the following four things:

  1.  All we have to deal with and all we can deal with is the present moment.
  2. We make our best effort to learn anything useful from the experiences we regret and grow from them.
  3. Useful actions are taken to repair any damage our behaviors have caused us or others, and make a serious effort to rebuild our trust and credibility — first with ourselves — and then with others.
  4. It's worse than useless to feel guilt and shame therefore we give ourselves full permission to rely on empathy, grace, and growth instead.

Whenever we realize that we can’t change the past, that we can only learn a lesson from it and move on, we are the better for it. The only really effective option to recover is to give ourselves compassion and make a meaningful effort to regain confidence and trust in ourselves. That’s when the emotion of guilt clears up.

Instinct, discernment, and conviction are useful to us as humans. They have better timing than guilt. Guilt itself is not useful. It’s that one dancer who’s always a few steps off. It’s useless to be feeling fearful or angry without having any meaningful action to take. The only way guilt can become useful is if it leads us to learning a lesson. Using our gift of hindsight to be able to learn lessons from past events and behaviors is one of the greatest advantages we have as humans. Guilt also has the possibility of leading us to foresight when we ask ourselves questions like, “What could be a better way of handling something like this in the future?

Asking questions can help, but they have to be the right questions. It’s not helpful to ask, “Why am I so ignorant, incapable, selfish, etc.?” Questions such as that are a no- win to begin with since they imply character flaws and do not point to solutions or hindsight. They only serve to create complexes about yourself, and ensure the repetition of to unwanted behavior.

Your brain is built to find answers to the questions you ask it. It will either find answers to those shame inducing questions, or keep focusing on them in search of something that seems worthy to justify the shame you’ve been feeling. Instead, ask yourself some truly effective questions that will actually help to improve your discernment and wisdom. Ask questions that will serve to build up your values and sense of confidence in yourself.

A Journaling Exercise For Transforming Guilt & Shame Into Discernment:

This exercise is intended to help you clear shame and guilt around experiences and decisions you regret. It works best for experiences whose intensity you would rate at a five or below on a scale from 1 to 10.

For significantly charged experiences and breaking the cycle for truly repetitive detrimental behavior, such as addiction, there will be more to address. Understanding the needs you’ve been trying to meet, behaviors that were modeled to you, and getting professional help for trauma clearing assistance, guidance, support, and accountability will most likely be necessary.

Now think of a time that can trigger you to feel shame and guilt just by remembering it — an experience or a decision you regret — one whose intensity is a five or lower on a scale from one to 10. Once you can really feel the feeling(s) and remember the circumstances surrounding the event, ask yourself...

✦ What lead to this event? How did my own behavior or the behavior of others contribute to what happened?

✦ What “red flags” if any, did I miss or not know how to best respond to at the time?

✦ What would I have needed to be thinking, feeling, prioritizing, or understanding in order to prevent ________ from happening (or prevent myself from feeling embarrassed or ashamed)?

✦ Who would I have needed to be like in order to have handled it better? Who could be a good role model? Perhaps a celebrity, or someone from my everyday life or faith? Or maybe a character from a movie, T.V. show, or book — someone who has the qualities I would have needed.

✦ If I could do it all over again, what would have gotten me a better outcome?

✦ Looking back on it now, what would have been good to do differently?

✦ What could be a better way of handling something like this in the future?

✦ Do I truly believe I could respond differently to the same red flags today? Do I believe I will trust my instincts? That I am capable enough to avoid similar situations in the future? Why or why not?

✦ What actions do I need to take to repair any damage from this experience, and rebuild trust with myself and others?

✦ What skills (if any) do I need to cultivate to make it less likely to experience something like this ever again? (E.g., conversations to have, professional help I may need, accountability or mentoring I could use in my life, etc.)

Now take some kind of meaningful action towards repairing this situation or making the change(s) you need to right now! Make a phone call, do some research, schedule an appointment, etc. The key is to continue to follow through. Invite someone, a person you can trust, to hold you accountable — someone who will be real with you but without judgement.

If You Need Any Further Help To Clear Feelings of Anger, Guilt, or Shame, Consider These Steps...

✦  You can use my Expanding Compassion Guided Meditation if you need any additional help to clear your negative thoughts. It's a simple, easy empathy building practice that can help relieve stress, anxiety, and tension in just 10 minutes a day. Studies have shown such practices to dramatically reduce feelings of anger, guilt, shame, self consciousness, and anxiety overtime. It can also help boost your self confidence and ability to set boundaries by promoting a balance between self care and caring for others.

✦ My New Behavior Generator Guided Meditation can help you build new attitudes and habits. This happens by simply using a role model as inspiration and the power of mental rehearsal and visualization.

✦ Review my Self Sabotage: Why You Need To stop Using This Term, as well as my Empowered Identity Builder for Men and Empowering Identity Builder For Women blogposts to embrace a new way of behaving. You may want to reassess your main motivations and how you’ve been meeting your driving needs. Always remember that you can consult with a mental health professional if you need further support, guidance, or accountability.

✦ You may also want to consider reciting the following prayers twice a day; as if you are speaking or thinking them authentically as possible with your whole entire being, mind, body and spirit:

  • The Ho'oponopono Prayer — “I love you. I'm sorry. Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you."
  • A Vipassana prayer — "May I (or we) be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be whole, may I be strong, may I live with ease, may I live with love."

Notice how different you feel after doing this twice a day for two - four weeks. I'd recommend saying these prayers two times in a row during each set. Concentrate on really feeling the spirit of the prayer from your heart as you direct it towards yourself or whomever you may need to.

✦ I'm available if you still need help to stop obsessing over a past event, clearing negative thoughts of guilt or shame, or stopping self destructive behaviors. Schedule an appointment with me to see how my services can help you feel better as soon as possible.

Let me know what you think of this post. Make a comment or contact me if you have any questions you'd like me to answer. If you found this information to be helpful, go ahead and share it on social media or with a friend who could use it.

Kristin Rivas

Kristin Rivas is a certified Brain Health Coach, Hypnotherapist, and NLP practitioner who helps people to feel, think, and live better. Specializing in behavior change and goal achievement, she empowers clients to live to their full potential & foster their own wellness. A former TEDx presenter, she is also a highly sought after speaker.

Kristin Rivas

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