Apply Opposite Action to Guilt & Shame

“The guilty think all talk is of themselves.” – Geoffrey Chaucer

In yesterday’s post, I discussed some of the important functional differences between guilt and shame that were discussed at a recent Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) workshop run by Dr. Marsha Linehan on emotion regulation.  Guilt and shame can both be very painful emotions to bear, although it is helpful to remember that these are also useful emotions that are trying to tell you something about your behavior – usually, that something needs to change.

When we become paralyzed by guilt or shame, wallowing in rumination or self-loathing, we are missing out on the valuable opportunity to learn something from a painful emotional experience.  When no lesson is learned, then all of that emotional pain has been for naught.  Furthermore, this only makes it more likely that the same emotional pain will recur in the future.  We tend to repeat patterns until we become aware of the role that we play and make real changes to our own behavior(s).

Justified Shame

Sometimes an emotion fits the facts of a situation. When guilt or shame fits the facts (i.e., is justified), then we need to take this as a cue to change our behavior.  An example of shame fitting the facts of a situation is when you will be cast out/rejected by an important group or person if attributes of yourself or your behavior are made public.  Consider recent examples in the media of politicians having affairs.  This is justified shame, because their actions are frowned upon by the general public, meaning that the emotion of shame “fits the facts” and they should take this as a cue to change their behavior (or accept the consequences: being cast out of the group).

Justified Guilt

An example of guilt fitting the facts of a situation would be when your actions/behavior violate your own moral code or values.  As discussed in yesterday’s post, you might feel guilt without shame or shame without guilt.  If a student who does not approve of academic dishonesty decided to cheat on a test or plagiarize an assignment because they ran out of time to study or simply forgot about a test, they would likely feel extreme guilt. Since the behavior violates the student’s own values, guilt is the appropriate (and justified) emotion.  This is another case where an emotion fitting the facts cues us to change behavior.

When guilt or shame is justified:

  • Repair the transgression – find out how you can begin to make up for what you have done
  • Apologize for whatever actions/behaviors are causing the shame or guilt
  • Commit to avoiding the same mistake again in the future
  • Accept the consequences of your behavior as gracefully as possible
  • Let it go – practicing mindfulness in your daily life can help build the skills needed to be able and willing to accept “what is” and let it go

Sometimes we experience shame and/or guilt that is either not justified or not effective.  These are situations where the emotion is doing us no real good other than to cause us (and possibly those around us) significant pain or distress.  In these cases, the application of opposite action is a DBT skill that allows us to effectively regulate emotions.

When guilt or shame is not justified:

  • Do the action/behavior that has caused the guilt or shame over and over again
  • Approach, do not avoid the thing that makes you feel guilty or ashamed

In Dr. Linehan’s upcoming revised version of her DBT skills training manual, she goes into much more detail about how to apply specific opposite actions to guilt and shame.  I look forward to discussing these in greater depth once this revised manual is published.

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Linehan, M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Linehan, M. (June 6-7, 2011). Updates to emotion regulation and crisis survival skills in dialectical behavior therapy. Austin, TX: Behavior Tech, LLC.

Featured image: Uplifting by aussiegall / CC BY 2.0

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