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Divorce Healing: Processing Guilt, Releasing Shame

You tried your best to make your marriage work, but it did not. Maybe your spouse left you, or perhaps you were the one who filed for divorce. Now, you may be trying to resolve conflicts and forgive your ex. That’s hard work. But what about forgiving yourself?

When a relationship ends, it’s never 100% one person’s fault. And sometimes, there’s no one to blame. Still, a common emotion after divorce is a sense of guilt … maybe even a sense of shame. You may feel guilty because you filed for divorce, upsetting your spouse and upending your children's lives. You may feel guilty because your spouse left you, leaving you to wonder what flaw of yours caused this chain of unpleasant events.

Believe it or not, guilt can be a healthy factor in our lives. Guilt can motivate us to apologize, learn from our mistakes, and strive to do better next time. When guilt turns the key to self-growth, we should embrace it. But guilt, when left to fester without proper processing, can turn to shame. And shame is downright destructive.

The difference between guilt and shame

The terms “guilt” and “shame” are not the same, even though people sometimes use them interchangeably in conversation. Whereas guilt can be a positive force in your life, shame is a highly negative one.

What is guilt?

Guilt is the state of having committed some kind of breach and knowing you carry the blame for it. You stole the cookie from the cookie jar. You've confessed. And you're accepting the consequences. But guilt is not, by definition, a moral judgment, nor is it a painful emotion that keeps you up at night. (Merriam-Webster backs this up.)

What is shame?

Shame is a painful emotion that keeps you up at night. Often, shame stems from guilt. (Merriam-Webster backs this up, too.) You may be guilty of taking the cookie from the cookie jar, but are you ashamed of your behavior? If you have decided you’re a bad person for taking that cookie, then yes, you are engaging in self-shame.

How to embrace guilt rather than letting it bring you down

Think about your feelings of guilt without the moral lens for a moment. What did you do, purposefully or not, that caused someone else to feel bad? Accept the facts, whatever they may be. You cannot turn back the hands of time and undo past events, whether you want to or not.

Now, identify the feelings you have attached to this guilt. How do you feel, and why do you feel this way? 

When you're ready, start thinking about forgiveness. Can you forgive yourself for what has occurred? Moreover, does the self-punishment you've inflicted upon yourself accomplish anything? Does it make anyone else feel better? Does it make you a better person?

The healthiest way to cope with guilt is to embrace it, stop judging yourself for it, and let any bad feelings go. Each situation is different, and each person's emotional makeup is different. Many people can't just "get over it" on their own, no matter how hard they try. If you can't let go of guilt (and can't stop punishing yourself) on your own, there are actionable steps you can take to work on it. Consider journaling your thoughts and feelings, confiding in a friend or support group, or seeking help from a therapist you trust.

If you're still left feeling bad for what has occurred, you're technically not wrapped up in guilt. Instead, you're wrapped up in shame.

How long does it take to get over divorce? The timeline is different for everyone, but an oft-quoted figure is two years. So, be gentle with yourself. Give yourself time to grieve and to heal.

How to cope with feelings of shame 

While it’s okay to acknowledge our contribution to the end of a relationship and sit with it for a while, it’s not okay – not good for your health – to remain dance partners with shame. Shame is self-destructive. You can’t stride with confidence into your new life wearing shame’s heavy weight on your shoulders. And yet, a lot of us wrestle with divorce-related shame.

Research-based reasons why we must let shame go

Shame attacks our physical and mental health, leaving us weak and less able to deal with whatever life throws our way. Here are a few scientific studies to back that up.

  • Shame has been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. This study explores how shame and PTSD are linked.
  • Shame leads to depression, according to this study. In fact, feelings of shame are much more likely to yield feelings of depression than are feelings of guilt.
  • Shame causes stress, and stress kills cognition. This study shows that stress reduces the number of neurons firing in your brain and impairs your thinking.

In other words, to wallow in shame is to make yourself vulnerable to the ravages of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and cognitive decline.

“The shift from shame to guilt is crucial. Shame is a state of self-absorption, while guilt is a response inspired by the hurt you have caused another.” – Esther Perel

Actionable ways to release yourself from shame

You know you need to free yourself of this burden, but how do you do it?

1. Think about why you’re stuck

Shame is a normal human emotion, advises trauma and addiction recovery coach Kendra McLaughlin . But it’s not who you are. Without judgment, ask yourself why you continue to feel shame after your divorce. Why are you stuck in this emotion? And, as Kendra says, “Remind your inner critic that you are a work in progress and that you’re navigating the best you can.”

2. Speak kindly to yourself

If you’re stuck in a shame loop, you’re undoubtedly engaging in a lot of negative self-talk. Step back and listen to that nagging voice from a neutral point. Is this the way you’d talk to a friend? No, of course not! So why speak to yourself that way? If you must criticize yourself, make it constructive – and do it gently.

3. Meditate

Shame is a difficult emotion, but it doesn’t have to rule your world. Examine your shame, but don’t judge it. Meditate on it. This guided meditation about shame explores the idea that shame is a negative emotion that will pass and that you can learn and grow from it.

4. Engage in self-care

Self-care can be a lot of things, from scheduling an appointment with a divorce therapist or a life coach to going to bed 15 minutes earlier than usual. Download our worksheet for designing a self-care plan, and commit to nurturing yourself rather than berating yourself.

5. Find like-minded friends

With a divorce rate of around 40% in the U.S., you are definitely not alone, even if you feel that way. Surround yourself, literally or virtually, with others in similar situations. You can find an online support group through a site like Circles.com. You can find social media groups for like-minded individuals as well. You might also enjoy reading about the lives of others in your situation and learning what they have to say. If so, check out our list of books to read about healing after divorce.

6. Accept yourself

You are human. You tried your best. Now, you’re turning an uncomfortable situation into a growth experience. Good for you. The philosopher Nietzsche said, “What do you regard as most humane? To spare someone shame.” If this resonates with you, take it with you. Keep it in mind the next time you feel negative emotions creeping in. Embrace the guilt, but send the shame packing. You owe it to yourself. And you can’t afford not to.

At Hello Divorce, we care about what you're going through, and we know it's not easy. Our goal is to lighten to load of divorcing people so they can successfully and happily move on to their next chapter. If you'd like to chat with one of our account coordinators about the services we provide, click here to schedule a free 15-minute introductory call.