Q: I understand what you are trying to say, but I feel this kind of therapy puts the emphasis on sympathy for people who do wrong instead of on the people who get hurt by them. Shame and guilt are like physical pain – a signal to yourself that you have done something wrong. How can someone know that hurting others is wrong if they feel they are excused because no matter what they do, they shouldn’t feel shame? That seems so unfathomable to me.

A: I think I know how confusing this can be, and I was very confused about it myself for years. But….

I like to tell about an exercise I did for ten years while teaching college students and doing workshops for other therapists. I asked every person in these classes to write down the ten things they’ve felt most guilty about in the last year and to not show their list to anyone. I then asked them to cross off anything that they’ve stopped doing UNLESS the only reason they stopped it was because the opportunity for doing it just didn’t exist anymore. None of these hundreds of students ever had even one thing to cross off! (And I double-checked with each class after our discussions to be sure.)

Guilt and shame don’t change behavior. Taking responsibility for our actions does. When we realize that what we are doing is hurting us – not emotionally but in terms of lost relationships or financial problems or jail time – then we can change.

Most people raised in our guilt-ridden culture feel a lot of guilt about a lot of things, but they keep doing them because they don’t realize how much they are hurting themselves by hurting others or taking advantage of them in various ways.

A mild example: Suppose you eat too much and you are overweight and worried about your health. Does feeling guilty about it stop you from eating too much? No. But if your doctor tells you that you will die soon if you don’t cut down, you will find that you can take responsibility for each bite you put in your mouth and you can lose weight much more easily.

A horrid example: Think of a person who beats their children and their spouse. They usually feel quite guilty about it after they are finished, but they also claim that they couldn’t help it (they don’t take responsibility) and they continue to use this excuse and do such things for years. And if they ever do stop it, it’s because those being mistreated got away from them, or because they feared jail or some other unacceptable consequence.

I know it’s really hard to understand in our culture but guilt doesn’t change behavior. Responsibility does.

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