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  • Writer's pictureKaren White

Using Our Emotions Wisely: Guilt and Shame

by Karen White

Introducing Karen White

Karen is a highly skilled ontological practitioner who completed the first South African Graduate Diploma of Ontological Coaching. An experienced executive coach and consultant, Karen has worked in different African countries for a number of years. I have the great privilege of partnering with Karen as we co-facilitate the Ontological Coaching programs in South Africa.

The social, cultural and historical context of our existence

As important emotions, guilt and shame do not exist in our lives outside a cultural context. As individuals we exist in social and cultural contexts, each of which have their unique historical traditions. We are raised in families and communities that are part of a wider society, all of which can provide us with a deep sense of belonging and connection to others. As social beings this is an inescapable part of our existence and plays a significant role in living a meaningful and joyful life.

While we are autonomous beings our interdependent existence includes being part of the institutional network of our societies, with the explicit rights, laws, rules and procedures that enable a society to function. Equally important are often unstated customs, conventions and practices that contain mores, values and beliefs, all of which have arisen from a historical tradition.

A shorthand way of thinking about laws, customs, etc is standards. Explicit and implicit standards are important as they provide a form of governance. Shared standards can be likened to a legal and moral compass, meaning that we can get on with doing and accomplishing things together with a minimum of friction and disharmony. Standards are of particular importance when we look at the emotions of shame and guilt.

We are deeply shaped by how we are experienced by others. As relational beings, being accepted by others deeply matters. What is interesting is that our emotional experiences occur within our relational dynamics against a social, cultural and historical backdrop.

Emotions and language

One of the fascinating things about emotions is that they open and close possibilities for us. Each emotion brings with it a particular way of understanding the world. What are emotions? In addition to be being feelings that are often felt in the body, they are judgments, or opinions, we make about the world that usually carry a particular story that is valid for us at the time. This means that language and emotions occur simultaneously.

In Ontological Coaching we work with the interpretation that emotions have a linguistic structure of four parts:

  1. something specific happened that can be established as being a factual occurrence;

  2. we have our version or story about what happened that may or may not include other facts;

  3. within the story are one or more judgments, which we can easily confuse with being factual or true, therefore making things “real” for us; and

  4. we make a silent declaration about how we will respond and what we will do.

Sometimes the reality-making process that is part of emotions can have the effect of emotions having the power of an ideology, so utterly convinced are we of the “rightness” of what we have perceived.

Guilt and shame

Working with the idea that emotions can be regarded as having a linguistic structure provides a useful way of understanding the nature of guilt and shame and how we can examine our own experiences of each emotion.

An important starting point is to refer back the notion of standards, which encapsulates much of what was said about the social, cultural and historical context of our existence. Our families, communities and societies have explicit and implicit standards for how we should conduct ourselves, which we can internalise without realising it.

Standards are a crucial part of the linguistic nature of our existence, for while not always spoken and exist within our internal conversations, the shared understanding we have of them can be articulated in language and they create an “inter-subjective reality”.

What goes on with us when we experience guilt? One interpretation of guilt is that we believe that we did (or didn’t) do something that we either should or shouldn’t have done. Let’s now look at this through the idea of guilt having a linguistic structure.

  1. Factually, we did or did not do something, such as forgetting to pick up our child.

  2. We have a story about the circumstances of what we did or did not do – “I was so busy all say and had three late phone calls requiring immediate decisions and my head was full of so many things that I completely forgot.”

  3. One or more judgments about our behavior in the situation – “That is terrible – what sort of a parent am I that I forget to pick up my child. What affect is that going to have on them?” We then interpret our action or lack thereof as not having met our own standards.

  4. We then cannot forgive ourselves and silently declare that we will punish our self. In some situations it can include feeling bad about our self as a person who is not worthy and should not be forgiven. We can be very harsh in our constant self-criticism. Childhood learning experiences about not meeting certain standards can have a lasting and debilitating emotional affect.

With shame, the interpretation plays out a little differently. The essential difference between shame and guilt occurs in parts 3 and 4 of the linguistic structure. In part 3 we judge that our behavior has not met the standards of the community.

The flow on is that we assess our public identity has been harmed in some way and we are lacking in the eyes of others.

Sometimes people speak about us in meetings and conversations, making us feel shamed in a public space. It can also be a private experience, where we are ashamed of what we believe others think of us.

In part 4 we silently make one of two declarations – either we declare that we will face the judgment of the community or that we will hide in some way (for example, not look people in the eye) and avoid facing the community’s judgment. In some cases, like forgetting to pick up the child from school, we can experience guilt and shame.

While shame and guilt have value in helping us live up to standards that contribute to a “good” society and allow us to make our best contribution there can be some very unfortunate “downsides”. Both guilt and shame can leave us feeling like we are not good enough and not worthy of our status as human beings. But if we look at shame and guilt as fixed and impermeable emotions there is no way out and we can be stuck with a deep sense of inadequacy and deficiency as a human being.

A way through this is asking ourselves questions, being open and curious with ourselves, and being willing to test some core assessments, assumptions, or judgments we may feel are the holy grails of our life. Questioning whether our own standards and the standards of others are the standards we want to live by can be crucial. What standards will best support our wellbeing and our relationships and offer greater choice and freedom? What are the standards you want to live from that you “own”?

Rather than being a victim of guilt and shame we can inquire and examine the languaging that accompanies each emotion and in the process begin to design a better emotional life for our selves. By doing so we can actively choose to live fulfilling lives that allow us to play as big or small as we like.

Karen White can be contacted at

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