Guilt and Shame

Sep 24th, 2016 | By | Category: Inner News
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new author pic of Lynn Francis

Lynn Francis


  • You are teaching in the class and there is a rule never to leave the class without a teacher present. You have diarrhea and need to head to the bathroom.
  • You have an appointment and need to leave 10 minutes early. If you ask the answer might be no. You leave anyway, but look around.
  • Your child is receiving an award the next day that you didn’t know about. You want to go but have to call in sick because you have no other policy-driven option.

These examples illustrate the unwarranted guilt and shame that we might experience at the workplace. Rules and guidelines are essential at work. However, when the letter of the law trumps the spirit of the law we might feel emotionally triggered into older, unwarranted feelings of guilt and/or shame.

According to, one of the meanings of guilt is: “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.” For our purposes, this “imagined” is important. It also involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else.

Shame, on the other hand, is “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.”

Guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is a focus on self. Guilt is: “I did something bad.” Shame is: “I am bad.” Furthermore, according to Stanford Psychology, “Shame is associated with the fear of exposing one’s defective (real or imagined) self to others. Guilt is the fear of not living up to one’s own standards.”

Longtime ESL teacher, life coach, and marriage family therapist Lynn Francis is interested in the inner life of the teacher. She writes, “Because the tools of our trade—methods, techniques, theories, activities—are so well covered at workshops, in-services, and conferences, I felt there was a need to address other aspects of the teacher that are not covered.”

Working in a hierarchical system, by its nature we are bound to be triggered into old feelings based on our younger selves, which may not be relevant to the current situation. They are leftover feelings from events that happened years ago. The stronger the reaction, the younger we have probably regressed. For example, I have heard teachers say something such as “I feel like I am 6 years old again.” This is frequently preceded by a rule, policy, or someone higher in the power structure that has triggered this old feeling.

We then experience shame that we are bad. (Remember the language that many of us grew up with and internalized? “You are a bad girl/boy.”) When this happens we really are reexperiencing old feelings that did not get processed and were not understood at the time they happened. Then, when we decide to not follow a rule or policy that we deem unfair, we feel guilty as if we were doing something “bad.” Overly authoritarian upbringings may have left us feeling guilt and shame for just being children without guidance about how to actually find resolution with these feelings. The residue remains.

break free image for Fall 2106 Inner NewsThere are ways to use these triggering events for increased self-awareness and self-understanding. Whatever relationship you are in—teacher-student, dean-employees—you are in a position to trigger others or be triggered yourself. If you are the one perpetuating the guilt and shame (not on purpose), notice your tone and your words. Are they helpful? Supportive? Kind? Curious rather than condemning? If you are the one being restimulated, notice your feelings, the sensations in your body, and your thoughts. Be curious and question their validity for the situation at hand. Be kind to yourself in the process.

Gangaji says that finding a resolution to guilt and shame is “a way of deepening and humbling.” Being mindful of our feelings and sensations in the body, we are in a position to choose behaviors and words based on current information rather than past guilt and shame. We have the opportunity to base our decisions on the present moment and not the past.

As we do our outer work in education—our lessons, tests, lectures, administrative work, and so forth—so we have the opportunity to do our inner work. Being in touch with our inner life helps us to be in touch with the “soft skills” of our trade—more patience, understanding with ourselves, students, and colleagues. Guilt and shame have an opportunity to be transformed …

Lynn Francis is a part-time instructor for San Diego Community College Continuing Education. She has been a teacher trainer for more than 30 years. She also has a private practice as a life coach and licensed marriage family therapist. Readers of Inner News can reach her at lcfranci@sdccdedu.


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