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Distinguishing Guilt and Shame Personally and Culturally

Understanding and healing trans-generational cultural wounds.

Key points

  • Guilt and shame have to be differentiated to be addressed and healed.
  • Shame is about the feeling that something is wrong and flawed within us.
  • Behind many cultural rifts is a large surge of unacknowledged, unfelt shame.

I recently participated in a seminar on Internal Family Systems (IFS). Together with the IFS approach, the seminar also drew on glimpse practices, micro-meditations that allow the practitioner to pause and shift to a place of spacious awareness as a way of holding hurt “parts” within the greater container of the “Self.” Out of the caldron of this seminar, new insight arose that may contribute to healing the vast divisions within our society.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a part-based model of psychotherapy, which addresses and heals wounded internal aspects, such as the internal exile, manager, firefighter, and protector. An important presence in this model of therapy is the Self, as it was first described by psychologist C.J. Jung. The Self is understood as the primordial, timeless, formless presence of wisdom and benevolence. As a person learns to tap into this presence in Jungian therapy, meditation, glimpse practices, or IFS therapy, this wise benign trans-personal sense of presence can be used to hold and heal a person’s wounded parts. Loch Kelly, a social worker and meditation teacher, first introduced glimpse practices. He uses them to allow swift and easy access to this state of being, so it can be used therapeutically. Loch Kelly, LCSW, and Richard Schwartz, the founder of IFS therapy, are currently working together to merge their methods.

A group discussion addressed exiled and wounded parts, especially feelings of guilt and shame. Guilt has been understood as an emotion that follows wrongdoing. Guilt can be remedied by understanding one’s actions, asking for an apology, and by making amends. Shame, however, is about how a person experiences themselves, such as carrying a sense of badness, inferiority, or of un-clean-ness. Shame does not have to be connected to what a person did, but it can be connected to defects perceived in oneself, the place in one’s family, or family inadequacies. Shame can also be connected to one’s ethnicity, religion, or social class. Shame is often very difficult to remedy.

During the seminar, I remembered my upbringing as a child born out of wedlock in post-war Germany, in an ultra-Catholic family. I remember my cheeks burning with shame around awkward family gatherings, in school, or when avoiding uncomfortable questions. Something deep down did not feel right about me.

My second memory evoked feelings about being German. Even though I was born after WWII, I felt awful about being German, especially when traveling around Europe. The phrase that circled around me was “German Guilt.” We had done wrong as a collective and, it seemed, that we were to feel that guilt forever. I suddenly realized that I was feeling “German Shame,” not “German Guilt.” I personally had not done something I needed to make amends for, but I, and a whole generation with me, felt bad as a people, despicable, and forever out-of-balance.

Then I thought of my adopted country of 38 years, the United States. In recent years incredible divisions have been creeping up, between the right and the left, between citizens and immigrants, between queer and heterosexual communities, and on and on. I wondered, “Are we dealing here with guilt or with shame?” Wrongdoing has been created by some that are still alive, and by many who are not alive anymore. Amends have to be made, and we need to do whatever we can to address the effects of this wrongdoing.

But I began to understand that addressing guilt is not enough if one does not address the vast wave of shame looming right behind it. There is an immense surge of un-felt shame, shame that we are part of a group who has done wrong. The unconscious reaction to shame can be pride. When pride takes over, shame is hidden from awareness. Then people or groups of people who may formerly have felt shame now feel superior. Yet, hurt is left on all sides, and empathy for the “other” vanishes.

What can be a remedy for shame? We need to listen to heal each other’s shame. An apology is not enough. The shamed person must hear, “I see you, I truly see you with the pain you carry.” Most likely, both parties of seemingly opposing camps feel their own version of shame. For example, those, who live homeless on our streets may feel ashamed about their state, and those who pass by may feel embarrassed about their lack of support and ashamed of turning away.

I began to wonder if it could be too challenging for many to look at problems in this world because of the pressure of unrecognized, unaddressed shame. Could festering feelings of vulnerability make it difficult to feel empathy for those on the other side of a painful divide? Is it easier to experience pride and indignation than to feel vulnerability?

We need ways, and practices to make it safe to listen to our own shame and that of others. Healing methods have been developed through truth and reconciliation committees. When the Self, as a wider, wiser perspective, is also invited to partake in this healing process, then the container can be large and strong enough to hold painful emotions, unbearable seeming fears, as well as compassion and love.

Within the safe container of Loch Kelly’s glimpse practices and Richard Schwartz’s methodology to reintegrate cast-out parts, it may be possible to allow those feelings of shame. This work can be done individually or in larger settings. Then one can allow oneself to unhook from the fearfully controlling "manager" mind, and to drop down to meet one’s own inner "exiles" until one meets the Self, the timeless, formless place, where all is interconnected, and from where wisdom and compassion naturally arise.


Introduction to Internal Family Systems, Richard C. Schwartz, PhD, 2023, Sounds True

The Way of Effortless Mindfulness, Loch Kelly, 2019, Sounds True

More from Radhule B. Weininger M.D., Ph.D.
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