Shame into regret

In General by Dr. Keith Witt


Part of the challenge of every vMEME (worldview) is dealing with human negativity bias. We privilege threats, dangers, and failures over triumphs and rewards. We obsess way more over faults and failures than we celebrate strengths, pleasures, and triumphs.

This is especially difficult with shame emotions like guilt, remorse, mortification, existential shame, and humiliation. The challenge of therapy (and development) is to turn shame which trashes our worth and moral fiber, into regret which has more of “I wish I knew then what I know now, so I could have behaved better and caused less damage.”

As usual, Wise Self is our most important ally
Below all our cravings, biases, addictions, defenses and cultural pathologies, we have a Wise Self who wants the highest good for all. We constellate this Wise Self early in development through our instinctive desires to care, share, and be fair—humans are incredibly social, and happily social when feeling secure, caring, and cared about. From infancy onward, progressive developmental experiences either amplify or suppress Wise Self, but Wise Self is always there.

Accessing Wise Self and bringing compassionate attention to shame allows us to acknowledge mistakes, make amends when possible, reevaluate and polish our values, and have appropriate regret for injuries we’ve caused and failures we’ve had through acting/thinking badly. Facing and processing shame in this manner helps turn shame into regret, which in turn supports transforming unforgiving stories of us as damaged and morally suspect (shame), into radical acceptance stories of us growing morally, taking responsibility for mistakes (regret), and resolving to do better from now on.

Shame emotions are necessary for healthy development and loving relationships
As I’ve detailed in The Gift of Shame, we begin feeling shame in the face of disapproval at around ten months of age. This shame is central to the differentiation/rapprochement stages of development and is necessary for us to become secure social beings. We break a social rule, are disapproved of, feel shame, and social learning takes place, creating internalized values. Eventually we learn to observe ourselves enough to feel shame emotions when we violate these values. Moral development essentially involves our unconscious Shadow self progressively taking on the role of other disapproving of ourselves not being virtuous.

Shame emotions are the foundation of our defenses
Shame is uncomfortable and dangerous. It is a parasympathetic collapse emotion which causes us to freeze, look down, and feel bad. Too much shame immobilizes us, so, in addition to cuing social learning, our nervous systems respond to shame by developing defenses like projection (“You’re being bad!”), denial (“I didn’t do anything!”), scapegoating (“Bad dog!), and projective identification (“You are the problem and deserve punishment!”). How well we can self-observe and regulate these defenses determines our altitude on the integration-of-defenses line of development.

Freud believed anxiety drove defense formation, but shame is actually the main emotional engine of socialization, and this of course is the gift of shame. Too much is toxic, and luckily we can learn to harness our shame emotions, turn them into regret, and eventually use them to accelerate our development on multiple developmental lines such as the self line, the interpersonal line, the moral line, the psychosexual line, and many more.

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