Shame and Guilt - Caught in the Maelstrom of the Times

Blog about shame and guilt from a psychologist in Oslo - Psykologvirke

The expectations of what people and life should be has exploded. Under this pressure, the self-esteem of the individual implodes - and the road to chronic guilt and shame can be a short one.

Do you have a guilty conscience about what you eat, about exercise (or lack thereof), about work, about sick leave, about your family, friends, partner and children? How can it have become so common to feel that you are at least one size too small? Are we really living in a world where we are supposed to go around and feel shame for living an ordinary life?

Each and every one of us can get pulled into the rat race, get trapped in time constraints and fall short in the age of self-promotion. A guilty conscience is also a lucrative commodity to sell in a market that feeds on false promises of happiness through self-improvement - “Give a headache, sell an aspirin”.

This creates collective illusions about where and when to draw the line around expectations. The expectations of what people and life should be like have exploded. Under this pressure, the self-esteem of the individual implodes - and the road to chronic guilt and shame can be a short one. One only needs to be hit by the thousands of demands of the age we are living in.

Different people can have different vulnerabilities and resistance to such forces. You can find a short overview of individual factors that can come into play here in earlier blog posts, for example 12 Tips for Chronic Guilt Without Reason, or Feeling Guilty About Everything and Anything? This is How to Break the Pattern of the “Blame Game”. In this article we will focus on some advice about how you can handle some of the more common sources of shame and guilt - The Maelstrom of the Times. 

Shame and guilt - change yourself or your Ideals?

Shame and guilt are closely connected. Feelings of guilt are more often related to responsibility and other people. That you have done something that does not coincide with the person you want to be. Shame is more global - it isn't that I have done something wrong but that there is something fundamentally wrong with me.

A common factor for both is that they have been triggered by not measuring up as relative to your ideals. To remove shame and guilt from this tension you can either improve yourself, change your ideals, or relate differently to both.

Employing the strategy of self-improvement in order to move closer to your ideal is the most common action. And this undeniably has something to offer. People are created to change and grow from the cradle to the grave. If you are “good” and do something that brings you closer to your ideal, your conscience is clear. Right up to the point where the conditions you have set to feel good about yourself are once again broken. Self-improvement as a strategy is a two-edged sword. Below we discuss some ways of making the destructive edge duller and the constructive edge sharper.

  • ● Reveal the “arrival” myth. The belief that satisfaction is waiting there ahead of you, contingent on you achieving certain things. Happiness is most dependent on how you face yourself right where you are here and now. That will always be more important than eventual goal achievement. Therefore, it is more beneficial to focus on an ideal way in which to meet yourself where you are right now - aim to enjoy the process more than the end results.
  • If you still wish to work on moving closer to your ideals: Create a structured schedule allowing time for you to work with things and time for you to relax with a good conscience. Find smaller, partial goals that you can actually achieve. Acknowledge your own limitations and accept them. The alternative is to dwell in shame and guilt.
  • Set boundaries for what you take on – in this way you aren't constantly lagging behind, unable to manage everything and end up with a guilty conscience.
  • To be human is to be imperfect. Accept that neither you nor any other members of the species of homo sapiens will ever be perfect. Everything human beings touch is fraught with flaws and shortcomings.

Adjust your ideals in order to adjust your shame and guilt

Lowering the level of your ideals is perhaps another underestimated method of reducing your shame and guilt. Often this can be out of sheer necessity for you - in order to keep feelings of guilt and inferiority at bay.

  • Our ideals are often based on comparisons to others. The problem is that we tend to compare ourselves with the sum of everyone else or an idealized image of others. And we will always fall short of this. It is easy to “scroll” your way to guilt through Facebook and other social media platforms. But no one is just what we see and at least not what we see on Instagram. It can be difficult to see that an “it” person also struggles with keeping their socks matched or their apartment clean. A more realistic picture of other people's lives helps you to lower your ideals.
  • Ideals vs Reality - to reach for ideals is like reaching for the stars - you never reach them, but they give you a direction to go in and light up your path. Be satisfied with this.
  • Incompatible Ideals: We can easily create contradictory goals for ourselves. In addition, we are met with partially contradictory gender role expectations. Women are supposed to be compassionate and caring but also care more about everything in general. Men are supposed to be both hard and gentle. When, in addition to this, they are both pursuing careers, trying to realize the family idyll and have active social lives things are already stretched. The web of expectations keeps growing.

Shame and guilt – commit to your own values

Try to protect yourself from internalizing the thousand demands of the age. Relate to what you actually think yourself. Demands and expectations can be experienced from external sources but must ultimately be rooted in yourself. Do you actually believe, based on your system of vales, that you have a reason to have a guilty conscience and feel ashamed?

Discover your own concept of world hierarchy. This requires conscious living and curiosity about oneself. Are you uncertain? Begin a process where you attempt to find it out, little by little.

If you want to give therapy for guilt and shame a try, you can read more about what you can expect in therapy for shame and guilt with one of our psychologists.