Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Therapeutic Role of Guilt and Shame

Entry for 20 February 2008:

The other night in the EFT Level 3 supervision group, we had a most interesting conversation about the potential therapeutic value of primary guilt and shame. This is a further elaboration of that discussion.

Primary Guilt and Shame

Primary shame is an adaptive response to discovering that I have violated my community’s social norms. It motivates action to display my awareness of my transgression ("embarassment"), including blushing and temporary withdrawal from contact with others, in preparation for changing my behaviour in order prevent future censure.

Primary guilt can be defined as an adaptive response to finding that I have violated my own core moral values, usually but not always by injuring another person; it prepares me to make amends or otherwise repair the injury. This is evolutionarily important for maintaining and repairing attachment-bonds is therefore likely to have survival for ourselves and our families.

Thus, both primary shame and guilt are strong, but transitory, emotions about specific situations involving personal transgressions or errors, which evolved to protect and repair relationships, because humans are fundamentally social animals. In this formulation, guilt is tied to moral issues (right vs. wrong), while shame involves issues of competence, appearance and etiquette.

Furthermore, primary shame and guilt can play a productive role in psychotherapy or counselling, motivating behaviour change in individual work and relationship repair in couples work. Motivational Interviewing, Emotion-focused therapy for couples, and Hayes’ Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), for example, all see a role for primary guilt and shame, even if it is implicit. And of course the traditional religious practice of confession, penitence and absolution centrally involves these emotions.

Maladaptive Guilt and Shame

But what about primary maladaptive guilt? This is of course quite familiar to us from our depressed and guilt-wracked clients and perhaps from our own overly strict upbringings. It seems to me that while adaptive guilt is about my having inflicted some specific injury on some specific person, maladaptive guilt is more global, that is, about my experiencing my whole person as being morally unacceptable to one or more persons important to me (where “person” can include God.)

Similarly, primary maladaptive shame is also about a global social failing, about my sense that I am generally incompetent, ugly or otherwise defective in the eyes of others.

One or both of these were involved for several of my clients, who reported that one or other parent couldn't stand the sight of them, because of their attributed moral trangressions (=> guilt) or personal failings (=> shame).

Secondary Reactive Guilt and Shame

Finally, I can come to feel guilty or ashamed not because of something I have done or failed to do, but because I am feeling some emotion that is unacceptable to me, such as anger, pride, jealousy, sexual arousal, or even fear or sadness. If I experience having that feeling as a moral transgression, I feel guilty (“I have sin in my heart”), but if I experience it as being weak or incompetent, then I feel ashamed of myself. These are emotions about emotions, which makes them secondary reactive emotions. Interestingly, in Process-Experiential therapy we regard these as nonadaptive and try to facilitate the client in working back from the “reaction to the reaction” to the reaction itself.

But I am saying here that if my reaction is to something I have done rather than simply thought or felt then that can be a primary adaptive emotion worthy of fully arriving at before I can go on, by assimilating what the emotion is trying to tell me, through making amends to the person I’ve injured (in the case of primary adaptive guilt) or through improving my social behaviour (with primary adaptive shame).

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