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Let Go Shame and Guilt

Chapter 5 Letting Go of Shame and Guilt

Growing Down - Tools for

Healing the Inner Child

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D. &

Constance M. Messina, Ph.D.

What are shame and guilt?

Shame and guilt are the:

  • Feelings of embarrassment, blame and responsibility for negative circumstances that have befallen yourself or others.
  • Feelings of regret for your real or imagined misdeeds, both past and present.
  • Sense of remorse for thoughts, feelings, or attitudes that were or are negative, uncomplimentary, or nonaccepting concerning yourself or others.
  • Feelings of obligation for not pleasing, not helping, or not placating another.
  • Feelings of bewilderment and lack of balance for not responding to a situation in the correct way.
  • Feelings of loss for not having done or said something to someone who is no longer available to you.
  • Accepting of responsibility for someone else's misfortune or problem because it bothers you to see that person suffer.
  • Motivators to amend all real or perceived wrongs.
  • Strong moral sense of right and wrong that inhibits you from choosing a wrong course of action.
  • Driving forces or masks behind which irrational beliefs hide.


How do others play on your feelings of shame and guilt?

People can and sometimes will:

  • Make you believe they will suffer greatly if you do not respond positively to their request(s).
  • Call on your shame and guilt to respond to their requests, even when it means violating your rights.
  • Respond to your irrational self by reinforcing your irrational thinking, giving you a sense of blame for past, present, or future actions.
  • Build up a verbal or imagined scenario that portrays you at fault for inaction, thus guaranteeing your sense of shame and guilt and your willingness to do anything to alleviate it.
  • Accuse you of misdeeds, words, or actions to arouse your sense of shame and guilt and make you believe you are the one with a problem in an interpersonal relationship difficulty. (This effectively takes the pressure off them.)
  • Reinforce your negative self-perceptions, encouraging you to be shame-ridden, guilt-ridden and self-judgmental for their benefit.
  • Build a case with moral absolutes to convince you of the right way to do things, avoiding that negative feeling of shame and guilt for themselves.
  • Set up situations for you in which you will believe your alternatives are limited to that which results in the least sense of shame and guilt.
  • Feign or fake hardship, illness, discomfort, unhappiness, incompetence, or other negative behavior to arouse your sense of shame and guilt and have you take over those tasks or duties, bringing imagined negative consequences with them.
  • Threaten negative consequences, like going to jail, to the hospital, to the juvenile detention center, failing school, dying, or divorce. This manipulation uses your shame and guilt to benefit them.

What can shame and guilt do to you?

Shame and guilt can:

  • Make you become over-responsible. You strive to make life right. You overwork. You over-give of yourself. You are willing to do anything in your attempt to make everyone happy.
  • Make you over-conscientious. You fret over every action you take as to its possible negative consequence to others, even if this means that you must ignore your needs and wants.
  • Make you over-sensitive. You see decisions about right and wrong in every aspect of your life and become obsessed with the tenuous nature of all of your personal actions, words, and decisions. You are sensitive to the cues of others where any implication of your wrongdoing is intimated.
  • Immobilize you. You can become so overcome by the fear of doing, acting, saying, or being wrong that you eventually collapse, give in, and choose inactivity, silence, and the status quo.
  • Make you a poor decision maker. It is so important to always be right in your decisions that you become unable to make a decision lest it be a wrong one.
  • Be hidden by the mask of self-denial. Because it is less shame and guilt-inducing to take care of others first instead of yourself, you hide behind the mask of self-denial. You honestly believe it is better to serve others first, unaware that shame and guilt are the motivators for such generous behavior.
  • Make you pulled in. You ignore the full array of emotions and feelings available to you. Overcome by shame and guilt or the fear of them, you can become emotionally blocked or closed off. You are able neither to enjoy the positive fruits of life nor experience the negative aspects.
  • Be a motivator to change. Because you feel shame and guilt and the discomfort they bring, you can use them as a barometer of the need to change things in your life and rid yourself of the shame and guilt.
  • Be a mask for negative self-belief. You may actually have self-esteem, but claim the reason for your negativity is the overwhelming sense of shame and guilt you experience.
  • Make you irrational. Because many irrational beliefs lie behind shame and guilt, you may be unable to sort out your feelings. It is important to be objective with yourself when you are experiencing shame and guilt; be sure that your decisions are based on sound, rational thinking.


What irrational beliefs or negative self-scripts are involved in shame and guilt?

  • I was responsible for the bad things that happened to me in my childhood.
  • How can I face others with what happened to me?
  • I am an awful person for that to have happened to me.
  • I must have asked for what I got in the past.
  • I am a bad person for what happened to me in the past.
  • I can never tell others what happened to me in my past.
  • I do not deserve to be happy.
  • I am responsible for my family's (spouse's) happiness.
  • There is only one right way to do things.
  • It's bad to feel hurt and pain.
  • My children should never suffer in their childhood like I did in mine.
  • My kids should have more material things than I did.
  • It is my fault if others in my life are not happy.
  • If my kids fail in any way, it's my responsibility.
  • It is wrong to be concerned about myself.
  • People are constantly judging me, and their judgment is important to me.
  • It is important to save face with others.
  • It is wrong to accept the negative aspects of my life without believing that I am responsible for them myself.
  • I am responsible if either positive or negative events happen to the members of my family.
  • I must not enjoy myself during a time when others expect me to be in mourning, grief, or loss.
  • I must never let down my guard; something I'm doing could be evil or wrong.
  • I must always be responsible, conscientious, and giving to others.
  • How others perceive me is important as to how I perceive myself.
  • No matter what I do, I am always wrong.
  • I should never feel shame and guilt.
  • If you feel shame and guilt, then you must be or have been wrong.

What steps can be taken to overcome shame and guilt in your life so you can grow down to your inner child?


Step 1: In order to overcome shame and guilt it is important to first attack them at their root causes. Shame and guilt stem from a set of fears, beliefs, or behaviors which have been discussed in the Tools for Coping Series by James J. Messina, Ph.D. What follows is a separate listing for both shame and guilt of the factors which contribute to them. By working on each factor directly using the referenced chapter, you will be able to overcome its impact on shame and guilt in your life:


The root causes of shame are:

  • Irrational beliefs (Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 2).
  • Lack of trust in self or others (Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 5).
  • Insecurity (Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 6).
  • Vulnerability (Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 7).
  • Pulling-in behaviors (Laying the Foundation, Chapters 5 and 12).
  • Denial of past hurts (Tools for Handling Loss, Chapter 3).
  • Despair over past hurts (Tools for Handling Loss, Chapter 6).
  • Inability to let go of the past (Tools for Handling Loss, Chapter 8).
  • Fear of rejection (Tools for Relationships, Chapter 4).
  • Victimization (Tools for Relationships, Chapter 7).
  • Depression (Tools for Anger Workout, Chapter 3).
  • Silent withdrawal of anger (Tools for Anger Workout, Chapter 9).
  • Overcontrol of emotion (Tools for Handling Control Issues, Chapter 15).
  • Idealism (Tools for Handling Control Issues, Chapter 3).
  • Sense of powerlessness (Tools for Handling Control Issues, Chapter 6).
  • Sense of helplessness (Tools for Handling Control Issues, Chapter 12).
  • Need to survive (Tools for Handling Control Issues, Chapter 14).


The root causes of guilt are:

  • Irrational beliefs (Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 2).
  • Sense of over-responsibility (Laying the Foundation, Chapters 3 and 12).
  • People-pleasing behaviors (Laying the Foundation, Chapters 10 and 12).
  • Rescuing behaviors (Laying the Foundation, Chapters 9 and 12).
  • Enabling behaviors (Laying the Foundation, Chapters 8 and 12).
  • Insecurity (Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 6).
  • Perfectionism (Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 12).
  • Pride (Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 13).
  • Lack of a healthy spirituality (Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 14).
  • Fear of conflict (Tools for Relationships, Chapter 2).
  • Lack of assertiveness (Tools for Relationships, Chapter 6).
  • Martyrdom syndrome (Tools for Relationships, Chapter 7).
  • Pessimism (Tools for Anger Workout, Chapter 5).
  • Resentment (Tools for Anger Workout, Chapter 7).
  • Blocked anger (Tools for Anger Workout, Chapters 1 and 2).
  • Self-destructive behaviors (Tools for Anger Workout, Chapter 12).
  • Inability to express anger in a healthy way (Tools for Anger Workout, Chapter 15).
  • Feeling intimidated by others (Tools for Handling Control Issues, Chapter 2).
  • Addictive need to fix and take care of others (Tools for Handling Control Issues, Chapters 4 and 5).
  • Over-dependence on others (Tools for Handling Control Issues, Chapter 10).
  • Manipulation by others (Tools for Handling Control Issues, Chapter 11).
  • Feelings of loss of personal control (Tools for Handling Control Issues, Chapter 15).

You can thoroughly address the root causal factors of shame and guilt in your life by utilizing the Steps to handling sections of each of these chapters.


Shame and guilt are often blocks to growing down because they play a role in blurring your memories and constricting your feelings. Use steps 2 through 6 to deal with each past unpleasant childhood or adult life problem about which you have shame and guilt.


Step 2: You can recognize the role shame and guilt play in blocking the memories of your past life by choosing a current problem stemming from your childhood and answering the following questions in your journal:

  • Name a problem from your childhood or adulthood which troubles you because of the shame and/or guilt you feel.
  • Who is responsible for the problem?
  • Whose problem is it, really?
  • What did you do to make this problem worse for yourself?
  • How much shame and guilt do you feel about this problem?
  • How much does the shame and guilt you experience exaggerate or exacerbate your problem?
  • If you felt no more shame or guilt, what would your problem look like then?


Step 3: Redefine your problem with the absence of shame and guilt as an issue. In answering the questions in Step 2 you recognized that shame and guilt were preventing resolution of the problem. To redefine your problem, answer the following questions in your journal:

  • How insurmountable is this problem from your childhood?
  • Is this problem interpersonal or intrapersonal?
  • If it is interpersonal: Can you help the other person and yourself to set aside shame and guilt and resolve this problem?
  • If it is intrapersonal: Can you set aside shame and guilt or the fear of it and resolve this problem?
  • Does this problem have more than one solution? Can others and yourself experience satisfaction, comfort, and resolution with a minimum of debilitating shame and guilt?
  • Whose problem is it, really?
  • Is it your problem or another's?
  • Are you taking on another's responsibility?
  • Are you trying to keep another from experiencing pain, hardship, or discomfort?


Step 4: If the problem from your past is really someone else's, give the problem back to the person(s). You do this by handing the problem over to your Higher Power using Chapter 7 Letting Go of Uncontrollables and Unchangeables in Tools for Handling Control Issues.

If the problem is yours from your past, go to Step 5.


Step 5: You must confront the real or imagined shame and guilt or fear of shame and guilt preventing you from handling the problem on your own. Consider the following:

  • What fears are blocking you at this moment from taking the steps you need to resolve this problem from your past?
  • What are the irrational beliefs behind these fears?
  • Refute the irrational beliefs using the steps given in Chapter 2 Handling Irrational Beliefs in Tools for Personal Growth.
  • Initiate a program of self-affirmation as presented in Self-Affirmations, Chapter 3 of this book.

For the next thirty days, use an imagery scenario in which you visualize shame and guilt as an object you packaged in a box. It is brought to a mountain top and thrown off a cliff for good.

Affirm for yourself that:

  • You deserve to solve this problem from your past. You deserve to be good to yourself, and you deserve to have others be good to you, too!

Re-parent your inner child with statements that:

  • As a child you deserved to be loved and cared for.
  • You were an innocent child who deserved to be treated better than you were.
  • You deserved parents who were able to give you healthy parenting with reasonable and rational guidance, discipline and advice.
  • There is no need to feel shame and guilt over what happened to you because as a child you did the best you could knowing what you did at the time and as an adult you are an imperfect human being subject to making mistakes.
  • You are a great kid with hope for the future and you trust yourself to give you what you need to succeed in life.

You are re-parenting that hurt child inside of you so that you can go on healed and ready to face the challenges of the rest of your life.


Step 6: If after thirty days of consistent work on these steps your shame and guilt on this problem is not resolved, return to Step 1 and begin again.


Step 7: For each problem in your past life for which you feel shame and guilt, use Steps 2-6 until you have exhausted all the shame and guilt you have over your past life. If your inner child is still unhealed due to shame and guilt after six months, return to Step 1 and begin again.