Episode 47: Part 1: The Role of Guilt and Shame in PTSD with Rebecca Christianson, LCSW
Episode 47: Part 1: The Role of Guilt and Shame in PTSD with Rebecca Christianson, LCSW
Friend of the family and friend of the podcast, Rebecca Christianson, is back with a two-part discussion on the two emotions that trip us up the most when working through PTSD: Guilt and Shame. Tune into part 1 to find out if guilt and shame may be holding you back in your recovery.
[It’s 00:00:01 music intro]
Alyssa Scolari [00:23]:
What’s up, everybody? It’s your girl, Alyssa Scolari. Welcome back for another very special episode of the Light after Trauma podcast. I am your host and we have with us today, a person who will be very familiar to you, the lovely LCSW, Rebecca Christianson. Rebecca, as many of you may already know, is my mentor and has served as my clinical supervisor. Rebecca and I have done podcasts together on grief and on resiliency and today we are coming at you with a two part series. So this podcast episode is going to be split into two episodes, mostly because there’s so much to talk about. So we’re talking about guilt and shame today. So hello, Rebecca. Welcome back.
Rebecca Christianson [01:20]:
Hi, I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Alyssa Scolari [01:23]:
This is your third podcast. I was just talking about Rebecca is a frequent flyer and I love it.
Rebecca Christianson [01:33]:
I know I should have a frequent flyer card or something.
Alyssa Scolari [01:37]:
Yeah. Yep. I love it. And obviously, as I was saying today, what we’re talking about, guilt and shame are two of the most, I think, complex and difficult emotions to deal with when it comes to trauma. So I know that we had been wanting to do this episode on guilt and shame for a while, but there’s so much to unpack. So we’re breaking it into two parts. So yeah, guilt and shame. Let’s dive into it. I guess… do you want to start with guilt?
Rebecca Christianson [02:10]:
I feel like guilt and shame are something that everyone struggles with. No matter what people come into our offices for, I feel like guilt and shame is something across the board that people really struggle with. So I feel like this episode is going to be really helpful to a lot of people. I think it’s important to denote the difference in guilt and shame. That’s one of the things that you and I had talked about before talking about doing this podcast. A lot of times I think that people don’t understand the difference between them.
So I think there’s appropriate guilt and inappropriate guilt. And then there’s shame. And guilt is a biological system that we have that tells us when we have done something against our moral code or against our values. It’s helpful because it tells us we have gone against our moral code and we actually feel guilt as early as three to six years old. And if we’ve done something against our moral code, we’ve stolen something or you’ve lied about something, then it’s resolved as soon as the damage is repaired. So when we are accountable for our behavior, that appropriate guilt is resolved.
Alyssa Scolari [03:33]:
It reminds me so much of, you’re talking and you’re probably like, why the hell are you smiling? But it just reminds me of, I don’t know when I was maybe 16 and teaching a summer camp, being a summer camp coach and having all these little toddlers and when they do something wrong, they tell on themselves. Leave it to a toddler to always tell on themselves. Excuse me, I’m the reason why the bathroom is trashed with toilet paper. I did that.
Rebecca Christianson [04:08]:
Yep. They always come clean. Yep. And then your guilt is resolved. Guilt is not a bad thing. It really is a healthy way of our bodies, that’s what it’s designed to do, right? Tell us, your fight or flight response is like a biological system that we all have to let us know when there’s danger. Guilt is an emotion that is helpful because we need it to let us know that we’ve gone against our moral code.
Alyssa Scolari [04:40]:
Right. We need guilt. We need guilt. It’s something that keeps, it almost keeps our society as a whole in check for the most part. Of course you have those who simply don’t feel guilt, but the majority of us do feel it. It might be, I think 1% of the population are psychopaths and sociopaths who typically don’t feel guilt. But for the majority of us, we do feel guilt and it just helps keep really the whole system in check. Because we have those moral codes and that’s appropriate. But then we have, guilt as we get older, and I think emotion starts to become more complex. And we start to have specific experiences in our life. Sometimes we can develop inappropriate guilt.
Rebecca Christianson [05:34]:
Right, right. And inappropriate guilt is something, there’s a couple of explanations, but often it’s when we’ve done something against our unrealistic high expectations of ourselves. So, we feel it’s rational and it’s often tied to a rational belief system or standards that we have of ourselves or others and weren’t able to attend a birthday party because we’re legitimately sick. And we feel guilty that we can’t, it’s like these high standards that we set for ourselves. And when we don’t reach those high standards, we feel guilt. That’s inappropriate guilt. It’s not resolved by resolving the damage because you can’t ever do that. It’s like the standard is too high.
The only way that it’s resolved is by self compassion and understanding that our standards are too high and have, setting realistic expectations of ourselves. That’s the only way the inappropriate guilt is resolved. So inappropriate guilt is resolved by either some good TBT work ourselves or seeing, seeing a therapist and understanding that our belief system and our standards are too high, and setting realistic expectations and standards for ourselves. That’s how inappropriate guilt starts to be resolved. It can’t be resolved by repairing the damage like appropriate guilt because the damage isn’t real. It’s perceived from an unrealistic standard that we have.
Alyssa Scolari [07:10]:
Right. So appropriate guilt can be resolved externally. Inappropriate guilt has to be resolved internally, therapy is just one outlet kind of like you said, cognitive behavioral therapy or other types of therapy. And I think of so many ways this shows up and I can think of so many ways in which this shows up. Just like you said about you’re so sick, but you got invited to a birthday party. Or even just calling out of work. How many people out there have their vacation days, sick days just accruing, accruing, accruing, because they feel so bad for calling out of work.
Rebecca Christianson [08:02]:
Yep. Yes. And inappropriate guilt is mostly formed from messages from our family. Inappropriate guilt is passed down. These standards are these expectations that are unrealistic. So if you have a parent who had unrealistic expectations of themselves and had inappropriate guilt, you learn that. Or if they had high expectations of you and you assumed those expectations were standards as you grew up, then that would be appropriate guilt. And you have to kind of go back and see the flaws in those messages and understand that you don’t have to assume those standards, and really look at what it’s realistic and what’s not, and learn how to set realistic expectations.
Alyssa Scolari [08:50]:
Yeah. I see inappropriate guilt showing up so much. I’m just thinking even over the weekends. I got an invitation to an event, I’ll keep it kind of general, of this friend of an extended family member who I really don’t even talk to. And I got this invitation to go to this party. And I was like I really just have too much on my plate right now and I can’t go. But the way I was raised is you have to go to everything you’re invited to. You have to bring the best gift. You have to show up. You have to act the happiest. You can’t be sick. You can’t say no. I was taught that kind of presentation is everything. And that when you get invited, you have to show up and you have to get a gift.
So even this person who I haven’t spoken to in years, quite frankly, this invitation that I got, I felt so guilty and I was battling this weekend, do I go, do I not go? And then finally I made the decision and I reached out and RSVP’d, no. No thank you. It’s just, I have way too much going on right now. Not going to be able to do that. But Ooh, that guilt hit me hard and that is from kind of like you said, like the parent stuff, the guardian stuff, the way that you were raised, the messages that you received when you were younger about living up to certain expectations.
Rebecca Christianson [10:31]:
Right. That’s exactly right. And understanding and what you said before about people who have the sick days and vacation days that accrue and accrue and accrue, and they have all this time, but then they feel guilt for taking the time they’ve earned off; that is inappropriate guilt. Because they’re putting some expectation on themselves when they earned that time, that time it’s given to them, but they don’t want to take it because of some expectation that they have or some high standard, or people who go to work sick when they have all these sick days. A lot of that is inappropriate guilt.
And there’s no way to repair inappropriate guilt or process inappropriate guilt until you look at those standards. Why are you holding yourself to that standard? Or why are you not taking that time off, that sick time? Self care, a lot of people feel guilty for taking care of themselves. They are parents, or they do take care of elderly. They can be a caretaker, but they can’t take care of themselves. That’s inappropriate guilt. And the only way to resolve that is to look at the reasoning and be able to question whether that thinking is flawed and set.
Alyssa Scolari [11:58]:
Yeah. And I even think of societal expectations, making us feel guilty as well. If my brain goes to, there’s survivor’s guilt, which is lots of people who come back from war who have lost friends, they have survivors guilt. They feel guilty that they survived when somebody else did not. Or the guilt that sexual assault survivors feel. Right. Well, if I wasn’t so drunk, well, if I wasn’t high, well, if I never went to that party. And I think that this is also a result of societal expectations, but I also would take it one step further and say that guilt, I think inappropriate guilt serves a purpose, different, but it serves a purpose just as appropriate guilt serves a purpose.
So I think appropriate guilt serves the purpose of keeping us in check, it lets of snow when we’re not living up to our moral code. Inappropriate guilt, I think makes us feel as though we had more control over the situation than we really did. I almost see it as a bit of a defense mechanism. Well, if I had just done this differently then this person wouldn’t have died. If I had just never done this, then I wouldn’t have been raped. And I think that we say that to ourselves because it gives us this idea that we actually had more control than, or it gives us this false sense of security that I could have controlled this. As opposed to the much more anxiety provoking truth, which is you actually had zero control over any of us.
Rebecca Christianson [13:48]:
Right. And it’s having to look at the reality of the situation and the thoughts that formed out of that situation and the flaws in those thoughts, right? The perfectionism, the high standard, that control, being able to look at the flaws in those thoughts. The actual lack of control that you had to be able to counter what you were just talking about. To be able to counter that inappropriate. A lot of it is societal. It’s not all messages from parental influences. A lot of it is societal. But shame on the other hand is…
Alyssa Scolari [14:30]:
Ah, yes. Shame.
Rebecca Christianson [14:32]:
Is a feeling of being fundamentally flawed. So instead of guilt, which is that you’ve done something wrong or that you haven’t measured up, right? Like done something wrong is appropriate guilt, haven’t measured up to your own standards or you didn’t have as much control as inappropriate guilt. Shame as a feeling of being fundamentally flawed, undeserving of love and respect. It’s caused by an innate sense of worthlessness or being defective. And it creeps in as early as 15 months of age.
Alyssa Scolari [15:10]:
15 months! That is is mind boggling to me. How can a 15-month-old, a baby, feel shame?
Rebecca Christianson [15:27]:
So lots of different factors here, but it’s primarily linked to attachment style. So at 15 months you already have an attachment style with the people who care for you. Right? It’s deeply wired. It’s shame is deeply wired. It’s much more challenging to re reverse. And it leads to a myriad of different things, right? Depression, substance abuse. It’s internalized. It’s connected to your self use. But it starts that early because of attachment style. And if you have a secure attachment, then you likely don’t experience shame until you’re older and then it becomes more of a societal influence where you feel shame. Right?
Alyssa Scolari [16:23]:
Rebecca Christianson [16:24]:
But if you have an ambivalent attachment style or a disorganized attachment style, then your needs being met. If it’s chaotic attachment stuff, it’s a disorganized attachment style, then your needs are sometimes met and sometimes not met. And when they’re not met, you feel like something is wrong with you. Right?
Alyssa Scolari [16:50]:
What’s wrong with me? Right.
Rebecca Christianson [16:52]:
What wrong with me, right.
Alyssa Scolari [16:55]:
So guilt is I did something wrong. Shame is I am wrong.
Rebecca Christianson [17:03]:
Right. And so I also was shocked when I looked at the research and it said 15 months, and I thought the same thing. How can a baby feel they’re fundamentally flawed? But it really is about those early, early ages and that attachment style. If it’s avoidant, if it’s insecure, then shame becomes a product of that. I am flawed. There’s something wrong with me. My needs aren’t being met or they’re sometimes met and sometimes not. So it really does start there, which is really fascinating. I feel like so many things come back to attachment style.
Alyssa Scolari [17:47]:
I feel like a lot of the research is showing that so much just comes back to early childhood attachment. I mean, even in utero. We know now, right, that babies in the womb can be deeply affected by things that are going on with their mother. They pick up on the energy. But yeah, 15 months, and it’s, shame is one of those things, and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this in your practice, but it’s a word that I think not a lot of people truly understand. When I ask people about the feelings that get brought up in them, shame can often be masked, as a lot of times people will say embarrassment. I’m embarrassed. What is the difference? Because I think that there is one. What is the difference between embarrassment and shame?
Rebecca Christianson [18:45]:
I think you can feel embarrassed, because you made a mistake. Or you feel like you, I mean, again, I feel like you feel more embarrassed related to guilt, something you’ve done or inappropriate guilt, like somehow you haven’t measured up. And shame is more about…
Alyssa Scolari [19:09]:
It’s more internal…
Rebecca Christianson [19:10]:
Yeah, it’s more internal. Right. So I don’t think that you feel shame. I think that the embarrassment would go more with I feel guilty, like why do you feel embarrassed? Right? I guess you would feel embarrassed about yourself if you feel like you’re always flawed, there’s something wrong with you, I guess that you would be embarrassed.
Alyssa Scolari [19:34]:
Or embarrassment. I wonder if it could be also the embarrassment in some cases is a more fleeting emotion, right? If I’m, and this happens to me on several occasions, if I’m walking my dog and I trip over air and eat the dirt, I’m embarrassed. I’m mortified. But not to the point where it’s affecting my worthiness as a human.
Rebecca Christianson [20:11]:
Right. Exactly, exactly.
Alyssa Scolari [20:15]:
I also think it’s important to point out, and you touched on this earlier, that people don’t really walk into our offices saying, “I have inappropriate guilt and shame.”
Rebecca Christianson [20:29]:
Right. So it’s also important to note that inappropriate guilt feeds shame. So I feel unworthy, and worthiness to me means that everything I do and say is perfect. So my worthiness standard is set so high that I can never achieve it. I feel unworthy so I felt inappropriate guilt over never being able to meet my high standard and it feeds shame. Therefore, I am unworthy. So inappropriate guilt feeds shame.
Alyssa Scolari [21:02]:
It’s like a vicious cycle.
Rebecca Christianson [21:04]:
It is. Appropriate guilt is there for a reason, like we talked about it. It is resolved when you atone for your behavior or whatever you feel guilty about. It’s forgiven. It’s resolved. Inappropriate guilt doesn’t get resolved because it’s about these standards we set for ourselves. Like I’m worthy if I, and then when we don’t reach that we have inappropriate guilt, which feeds this shame message of I’m just unworthy as a person. So inappropriate guilt feeds our shame messages. And interestingly enough, people who have, and that starts with our attachment to our parental figures, right? The people who care for us, the people who love us. If that’s not a secure attachment, it’s likely that we carry some shame. Some message that we’re flawed in some way. And then depending on how pervasive that shame message is, it dictates how we connect to other people, how we attach to other people.
If our shame message is so profound, it’s difficult. We’re going to have an insecure attachment to the people we love as we get older. It’s belonging. So the treatment of shame is really looking at attachment and repairing the attachment, repairing your attachment, like belongingness. I mean, there’s a lot of different things that we can talk about when we talk about treatment of shame, but to look at shame, it’s people who are self critical. There are levels. It’s like so many other things, it’s kind of like a spectrum. Everybody has some shame. So you’re either over on the, I had a secure attachment growing up, I felt some societal shame, everybody has some shame. Or you’re somewhere along the spectrum, people who grew up in a really highly disorganized attachment style, they probably feel more shame and they have difficulty attaching to other people and they will make those attachments chaotic also.
Alyssa Scolari [23:11]:
Yeah. It shows up in so many ways, like you said. It shows up in eating disorders, aggression, addiction, suicidality, becoming extremely withdrawn, and also very, very dysfunctional relationships with others. So that is kind of what guilt and shame looks like underneath all of the things I just mentioned why guilt and shame. And potentially excessive amounts that we want to work to try to get rid of.
Rebecca Christianson [23:49]:
Yeah. Because if you have a lot of anxiety and you have obsessive intrusive thoughts. A lot of times we’ll treat anxiety or we’ll treat depression without really understanding how deep the shame messages go. And that is the root of a lot of the anxiety and I think it’s the root of so much anxiety and depression. One of the ways that, there’s a lot of diagnostic criteria used to diagnose shame. But one of the things that I think is always helpful. A lot of people who have profound shame messages will self punish by limiting pleasure. So if people don’t have things that they find joy in, they don’t have hobbies, they can’t describe happiness. They probably are limiting pleasure to self punish because of these shame messages of I’m not worthy. I don’t deserve to have fun. So it’s really interesting. I thought that that was really interesting to think about. Like workaholics. Like do you…
Alyssa Scolari [25:01]:
Wow. That is very powerful. Workaholics, even potentially perfectionists, because when we are stuck in the perfectionism, which I use used to be all the time, you have no fun. Zero fun is to be had when you are living in a world where everything has to be perfect.
Alrighty and I think this is where we should wrap up for today. This is going to be a two part episode. It’s a lot of information that we’re throwing at you, but this stuff is really, really important for recovery. So guilt and shame, two of the most important topics I think to talk about. So we are going to get back at it with the same kind of stuff, talking about ways to recover and going in depth about ways to recover from guilt and shame next week. So I hope you enjoyed part one and stay tuned for part two. See you all next week.
Thanks for listening everyone.
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