Overcoming Guilt and Shame and How to Forgive Yourself

Follow this 4-step plan to rid yourself of baggage from the past.

Written by Dr. Karen January

Let’s begin with a story I know all too well. For over forty years I have carried the shame of self-hatred that has followed me like a cloud over my head. There are many forms of self-hatred. Mine is rooted in body image. I have given this emotion power and it has taken on a life of its own.

I was considered a chunky young girl and the kids at school made fun of my weight. They called me (fat ass, fat mama, and fatso) and those were just some of the names. This continued until my junior year of high school. By this time the lack of love for my body temple was set in place.

By high school, I was 172 pounds when I begged my mother for some diet pills and I was only sixteen years old. I couldn’t take it anymore being a size 18 when most of the girls at school were a size 7. All the boys gave them the attention and I wanted the same. My mother made an appointment with the doctor and he prescribed amphetamines and water pills for me and as I left the office I couldn’t have been happier. This was also the beginning of an almost deadly cycle that followed me into adulthood, when I would become addicted to pills, exercise and any other means to lose weight. I harbored the guilt and shame that I could not love myself or conceive that a man could possibly love me unless I was a certain dress size. I was unable to embrace the body that was created and given to me. My self-worth and life revolved around my body and the image I thought it was supposed to be.

Thankfully, I have been healed from the self-loathing behavior that could have killed me, and almost ruined me financially as I tried to dress up my mess.

It may sound strange but there is a purpose for guilt and shame. Guilt represents our conscience and will alert us when our actions are contradictory to our core beliefs or values. For example, your parents taught you not to steal but you do it anyway; your conscience or guilt warns us that you are doing something wrong. Shame comes into play when we ignore our feelings of guilt and continue to do what we believe internally is wrong.

For some it is difficult to move forward or you may not even want to. It is certainly easier to continue punishing yourself when you’ve don’t something unforgiveable. It’s much simpler to beat yourself up especially if you feel that you deserve it. Finding peace and happiness is a much harder task to achieve.

How do we begin to heal from this cycle of guilt and shame?

Free Yourself Step 1: Take Responsibility for Your Actions. Acknowledge what you have done and do not ignore the part you played. Be specific about what you believe you did wrong and who was hurt in the process. Determine why you committed this act and what or how you could have handled the situation differently?

Free Yourself Step 2: Ask for forgiveness of those you have harmed. Depending on what the actions or circumstances were this may not be an easy thing for you to do. We can’t always correct our mistakes. Some things we have done cannot be fixed but you can apologize and make an offer to make amends for your actions. Talk to those people and explain what actions you took against them. Give them an opportunity to express how they feel about what happened and then allow them to sort through their feelings with you. Not only must you ask for forgiveness from others but you must forgive yourself too. Keep in mind that self-forgiveness is a process and it may not happen for you overnight.

Free Yourself Step 3: Learn and Grow. In order to learn and grow, continue to challenge your value system and determine what you believe is right and wrong. Setting your values in place will help drive your behavior. When you are confronted with a questionable situation you will be better equipped to make choices and decisions that are in alignment with your belief system.

Do not condemn yourself by dwelling in the past. How can you enjoy your present life if you’re holding on to the past? It won’t change anything and will only hinder you from moving forward.

Free Yourself Step 4: Don’t be so hard on yourself. Have some compassion. You would have it for your best friend so why not pour out some for yourself. Remember that whatever decision you made no matter how bad it was; think of yourself as the good friend that you are confiding in. How would you respond to yourself? Are you going to attack what you did, or will you be empathetic and compassionate. You should want the same thing for yourself!

The best approach to take toward healing is to understand that even though you forgive yourself you are very aware that you are responsible for the faulty behavior that occurred. You can also regret your actions and still accept that you are a good person who made a mistake.
Your level of maturity, the circumstances that involved the behavior in question, and your awareness of this act must be considered in resolving your guilt and shame. It is a good idea to utilize your resources that are available. Talk with a close friend or family member. If you need further support seek a professional therapist or a counselor. In the end only time, understanding, compassion and forgiveness will be the key to end that vicious cycle of shame and guilt.

Is there something that happened in your past that you are so ashamed of that you couldn’t tell anyone? Or, if you did it was only a few people? Is there a still small voice inside of you that constantly whispers “shame on you?” If you are consumed by guilt and shame and you can’t seem to shake it no matter how hard you try, then you are not alone. There is a light at the end of the tunnel but it can be a long troubling journey to get there. You are the only one that can make that happen.

DR. KAREN JANUARY is the author of Lessons Mama Never Taught Me can be purchased for Kindle online at Amazon.com or in hardback at Createspace.com. Visit Dr. January’s website DrKayJay.com to read a sneak peek as well as learn more about her. Dr. January is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, an administrator and educator, the founder of a nonprofit that focuses on mentoring at-risk children, and a speaker on women’s issues. She resides in the greater Chicago area.

Illustration by ASUROCKS