February 5, 2015

Understanding and Overcoming Our Guilt, Shame and Anxiety

By Dr. Peter Breggin

Why do we human beings suffer so much from the demoralizing emotions of guilt, shame and anxiety? Over many centuries, answers have varied from our biological humors (Hippocrates) to biochemical imbalances (modern psychiatry) and from original sin to existential awareness of death.

I believe that the emotions of guilt, shame and anxiety have closely-related functions in our lives and that these functions evolved through biological evolution and natural selection. Understanding the biological and evolutionary origins of guilt, shame and anxiety can help us to achieve emotional freedom from them.

Human beings have a special problem that must have threatened our survival from the beginning millions of years ago. On the one hand, we have extraordinary capacities for willfulness, aggression and violence. Half a million years ago, small bands of us were slaughtering and butchering creatures much larger and fiercer than today’s elephants, sometimes armed with nothing more than pointed sticks. This illustrates our willfulness and violence.

On the other hand, these same hunting expeditions also demonstrate our innate capacity to cooperate with each other, as well as our strong social drive to bring back sustenance to our families at the campsite. We humans early on were developing unmatched caring and a desire for physical, sexual and emotional intimacy. As many others have also concluded, it is reasonable to describe ourselves as possessing a “social brain” that is shaped in infancy in response to our most intimate relationships. How could creatures so willful and violent, and yet so tender and loving, avoid tearing each other apart in the close confines of primitive family life?

Biological evolution and natural selection found a partial solution to these conflicting drives. Restraints upon human nature evolved to prevent extremely aggressive responses within our intimate relationships. These emotional restraints did not have to suppress our violence toward outsiders or strangers. A violent reaction to potential competitors or predators had survival value; it may account for how humans and then Homo sapiens out-survived all the many other bipeds.

As I propose in my new book, Guilt, Shame and Anxiety, natural selection favored humans who had emotional inhibitions on unleashing their destructive impulses on others with whom they live in close association. Each of the three emotions reacts in its characteristic manner to inhibit us when we are in personal or intimate conflict with others.

Guilt is the most obvious in its function. When we assert our personal needs or viewpoint, guilt restrains us by making us feel bad about ourselves. We blame ourselves and our anger turns inward.

Shame pushes us to blame others instead of ourselves; but at the same time shame restrains us by making us feel too worthless and impotent to assert ourselves in conflict with others. Instead, we tend to withdraw and suppress our angry feelings.

Anxiety restrains us by dispersing our anger, making it directionless and helpless. We end up in mired down in emotional confusion and uncertainty with no place to direct our anger.

Guilt, shame and anxiety are nature’s answer to anger management in our more personal or intimate lives. Unfortunately, these emotional reactions are very crude, relatively ineffective, and too often backfire. They are part of a very incomplete and presumably ongoing evolutionary process that falls short of keeping up with mature adult reasoning and values.

Evolving very slowly over millions of years, these built-in emotional reactions had to be simple or gross enough for implantation in our DNA. They also had to be crude enough and sufficiently malleable to be activated and shaped in our infancy and childhood. Because of their primitive origins in evolution and childhood, how we react with guilt, shame and anxiety has little or no basis in sound judgment about the necessities of reality or mature adult ethics. We may feel guilty, ashamed or anxious about actions we have taken that seem entirely innocent or innocuous to objective observers; and at other times, we may not feel the emotions at all when the same objective observers think we should.

Our negative legacy emotions seldom reflect anything we have done to others and instead typically reflect what others have done to us. Ironically, the more severely we suffer from guilt, shame and anxiety, the more certain it is that perpetrators forced those feelings on us while physically, sexually or emotionally abusing us as innocent children. Negative legacy emotions are the great enforces of childhood abuse, bullying and domestic violence because they are especially aroused in intimate relationships and because abusers can use them to control and suppress their victims.

Because the initial activation of these emotions takes place in childhood, we have little recollection or understanding of how we initially came to respond in our particular or characteristic ways with these emotions. The origins of our demoralizing emotions are literally prehistoric, first because they are the result of millions of years of biological evolution and second because they were shaped in infancy and childhood before we were cognitively able to recall or to understand what was happening to us.

It can help enormously to realize that our feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety have nothing whatsoever to do with “reality” or with anything wrong, shameful or stupid that we have done. They are literally negative legacies from biological evolution and childhood. They are impositions that often disrupt and inhibit our more positive capacities for reason, cooperative relationships, and love. At times they can crush our assertiveness even when it is required for self-defense or the protection of loved ones.

Do you worry that some people will behave badly if they stop feeling guilt, shame and anxiety? In my clinical and forensic experience, it is the opposite: These emotions commonly drive both self-destructive and violent actions. When overloaded with guilt, people tend to harm themselves or strike back in resentment against anyone who seems to be making them feel guilty. When feeling overcome with shame, people can end up harboring staggering amounts of anger and in the extreme can perpetrate terrible acts of violence. When feeling anxious, people are less likely perhaps to break out in violence, but they usually simmer with frustration and anger over their feelings of helplessness. Without recognizing how angry they are, they succumb to anxiety and panic, causing great harm to themselves and those who care about or rely upon them.

Even if we conclude that children and some adults “need” these negative emotions to restrain their worst impulses, you and I as adults can decide to live good and ethical lives without their painful and distracting intrusions upon us. Especially if armed with the concept of negative legacy emotions, we can learn to replace guilt, shame and anxiety with rational principles, improved relationships, higher ideals and love. Understanding and rejecting negative legacy emotions takes work and practice, but it provides a psychological and spiritual launch pad for becoming more emotional free to live happy and productive lives.