I don’t know about you, but guilt, shame and anxiety are probably my least favourite and most uncomfortable emotional experiences. That’s why, for this month’s book summary, I’m sharing 10 key lessons from Guilt, Shame and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions by Peter Breggin. This is a meaty and fascinating book that runs counter to common wisdom. It suggests feelings like guilt, shame and anxiety in adulthood hinder us more than they help us and offers suggestions for how we can work towards emotional freedom.
The central premise of the book is as follows: what he calls “negative legacy emotions” like guilt, shame and anxiety are prehistoric. They exist because, as humans, we have an internal conflict: we are social beings, yet we are also violent beings. These emotions help us inhibit our violent and wilful tendencies so we can better fit in with our tribe or society. According to Breggin, these emotions serve a similar purpose in childhood. They help control wilfulness and aggression before children can understand adult reasoning.
Yet, as you’ve probably experienced, guilt, shame and anxiety all have a way of hanging around long into adulthood. This is where they can cause us problems. As Breggin explains in more detail, they can distort our behaviour, our mindset and leave us feeling helpless and disempowered. If you’d like to learn more about the book, you can check out the 10 lessons at the end of this post. In the meantime, I want to share a simple framework from the book for gaining more emotional freedom from these experiences in our lives:
1. Identify and acknowledge negative legacy emotions.
The first step to emotional freedom is to identify and name the feeling. This requires a level of conscious self-awareness and vigilance on our part. As Breggin says: “Anyone who has tried to grow even a small garden knows a simple lesson: if you rarely tend your garden, invasive weeds and vines will strangle and snuff out your beautiful flowers and your nutritious vegetables. Guilt, shame, and anxiety act like invasive weeds and vines in our minds. Like weeds, we must not allow them to take over, and, if they do, they require ruthless weeding out and replacement with more valuable emotions and attitudes.”
2. Reject any compliance with these emotions.
Another way to put this is: question the meanings you attach to these feelings. As Breggin explains in more detail in the book, when we feel guilt, we believe we are guilty—even when this isn’t actually the case.
A common belief is the idea we need guilt, shame and anxiety to keep our behaviour in check. There will be times when we make mistakes, exercise bad judgement and behave in a way that wrongs someone else. Even during these times, it doesn’t serve us (or the other person) to feel guilt. Guilt is borne from feeling helpless and therefore is likely to lead to inaction and avoidance, more than righting any kind of wrong. According to Breggin, more constructive emotions during these times are regret and remorse. These are more likely to spur us into making amends and change our behaviour in the future.
3. Triumph over and transcend these emotions.
According to Breggin, a key aspect of gaining emotional freedom lies in choosing our own set of ethics rather than simply adhering to society’s morals. Whereas morals revolve around social norms for good behaviour, ethics require us to evaluate consciously and choose a set of rational principles based on our capacity for reason and empathy.
“Use reason, ethics, and love as your guidelines. Ultimately, learn to identify, embrace, and live by higher ideals and purposes and love.”
How can you start using this 3-step process in your life? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
Further reading: shame vs. guilt & what Japanese pottery can teach us about feeling flawed
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