We all have stories that may have initially triggered shame, guilt or other unpleasant feelings in our lives. When we were kids, we all fibbed to our parents. Do you remember what happened when you got caught and the grown-ups reprimanded you and expressed their disappointment? You might remember it as a funny or unpleasant story. Have you noticed how your amazing mind reminds you of it at times?
The Amazing Human Mind
The adults in our lives most likely had good intentions in correcting us. If in that very moment we experienced unpleasant feelings such as shame and guilt, our brain automatically recorded the link between the situation and the feelings and thoughts we were experiencing then.
AND there is a slight little challenge; there is NO delete button in the human nervous system. That’s just the way our minds operate because we have language, the ability to communicate, remember, and relate anything to everything.1
Thus, when we encounter a situation that evokes unpleasant feelings such shame and guilt, the mind might say, “Remember when you lied?” We react and might start trying to push our feelings away. The question is, are we reacting for survival or are we responding in a way that allows us to keep moving toward the things that matters most in our lives, despite the discomfort?
It is difficult to change our relationship with unpleasant feelings, and when OCD is involved, it can be extra challenging, but it is possible! OCD or not, we all can change our relationship with guilt and shame.
What is Shame?
Shame is an unpleasant feeling that shows up when we get caught in the content of our thoughts. When we feel shame, we place blame on ourselves and believe something is essentially wrong with us. Then we may start believing that we are not worthy of love.
Any themes of OCD (including scrupulosity OCD) can lead you to become stuck when your mind seems to say, “You should be able to control those awful thoughts!” The judgmental reprimands from the mind don’t seem to ever cease.
OCD is ego-dystonic. The intrusive thoughts you experience don’t match the person you are and wish to become. It makes sense to want to get rid of them. However, the moment you start fighting them, that’s the moment you get stuck with those thoughts and shame shows up.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is an unpleasant feeling we experience when we have done something wrong. We can also get hooked with this feeling. Guilt can be helpful when it leads us to change and recognize we’ve done something wrong. When we make amends, we can go on with our lives.
However, when you struggle with OCD and your mind says that you have to be perfect in your live, you may get stuck as you start obsessing about past behaviors and also start worrying about the future (e.g., “No one will want me.”). The good news is that you CAN change your relationship with shame, guilt and any other feelings that get you stuck.
Here are some reminders to help you keep going:
- Our thoughts and feelings are neither good nor bad; they are simply internal private experiences that occur depending on the situation where we find ourselves each moment.
- You can learn to become aware of your thoughts and feelings and choose how to respond. Activities such as using your senses when taking a walk can help you increase your awareness and allow you to create more space between your internal experiences (e.g., thoughts and feelings) and your responses to them.
- Notice what happens when you start fighting, ignoring, controlling, and suppressing those internal experiences (e.g., thoughts and feelings). Is how you are responding allowing you to live with vitality?
- Every human being experiences shame and guilt. You are not alone.
- Be curious and notice if you can find a value on the other side of guilt or shame. We would not experience pain about certain situations if we didn’t care. Ponder that.
- Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who is struggling with a similar challenge. Find out what happens when you give yourself a little kindness each day.
- Connect with the here and now and acknowledge your emotions each day, especially when shame and guilt are present (“I’m noticing shame is here. I can allow it in this moment even though I don’t like it.”).
- Ask your clinician to help you practice bodily sensations exposures so you can learn how to allow them instead of trying to get rid of them.
You can discover that you can be imperfectly good and experience inner strength and satisfaction despite unpleasant internal experiences such as guilt and shame.
Last but not least, remember to anchor on your faith and religious beliefs. God can sustain you amid adversity. Trust the Almighty and keep walking in faith.
Hayes, S. C. (2019). A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters. New York: Avery.