Guilt, Shame, and Focusing on the Future

© 2015 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

It’s common to have feelings of guilt and shame when going through a separation or divorce – whether you initiated the separation or your partner did. You might feel guilt for something you did, like spending too much, drinking too much, or having an affair. Or you might feel ashamed for being depressed or not earning enough money. Maybe your partner wanted to move to a different city or wanted different friends than you did. Or maybe you feel guilty toward your children that you couldn’t save the marriage or didn’t protect them from arguments or burdened them with your own upset feelings. You might feel a sense of shame around your relatives for choosing a partner they didn’t like, or for giving up on a partner they did like. Or feel guilty toward the children that you left the family for a while or at they won’t be spending as much time with you in the future.

These types of guilt and shame are very common emotions when people go through a separation and divorce, and there are positive ways to manage these emotions.

What are Guilt and Shame?

Guilt is the feeling we get when we believe we have behaved badly and expect someone will be upset with us. It can stop us in our tracks, or dominate our thoughts and feelings for days or weeks.

On the other hand, shame is the sense that we are totally bad – that there is something entirely wrong with who we are. Many of use grew up hearing the phrase: “You should be ashamed of yourself!” But your whole self? That’s pretty extreme.

Shame doesn’t really help us, because it’s a negative judgment of the whole person. Shame is related to all-or-nothing thinking. It’s the idea that a person is “all bad.” Because we use flexible thinking, we don’t want people to feel ashamed of themselves. This ashamed feeling just makes people feel more defensive and less likely to change their future behavior – because they get stuck defending themselves as a whole person. You don’t have to do that. Instead, pat yourself on the back and look at your behavior – is there any behavior you want to change?

It’s healthy to feel guilty sometimes, as it can keep us out of trouble. Guilt can help us change our behavior, so that we don’t repeat something we felt guilty about. Guilty thoughts can also stop us from taking an action in the future that would be harmful to us or to a relationship we care about.

How to Manage Guilt

These emotions can be and should be managed, so that they don’t control your life or your decisions. In reality, they can help you stop and think about your past decisions and behavior, so that you can make more successful decisions and choose more effective behaviors in the future – because guilt got your attention. In terms of your brain, guilt (and shame) seem to be associated with your defensive right brain, which generally thinks faster than your problem-solving left brain.

  1. First of all, recognize that guilt can help you. Pay attention to your guilt. (Shame can get your attention too, but it’s important to remind yourself that you are not a bad person, even if you did something bad. Tell the shame to back off, but listen to the guilt.)

  2. Then, stop and think about your choices. What is your guilt telling you? If it’s a guilty feeling about something in the past, think about whether you should change your future behavior or if there’s something you need to do now to address your past behavior.

  3. Focus on the future. Use your flexible thinking, as you figure out what to do now. Don’t let guilt or shame immobilize you. There’s always tomorrow and you can always try something different. If you’re stuck, talk to someone else to get some ideas.

An Example

Suppose that George has a court order that says that both parents are supposed to both agree before either he or his co-parent takes their child to a counselor. (This is generally part of joint legal custody in many states, even if it isn’t addressed specifically.) They are supposed to both agree on whether or not their child needs counseling in the first place, then they’re supposed to agree on who the counselor will be. Let’s suppose that George got worried one day that their child was feeling stressed by their separation and divorce, so George took the child to a counselor. They had a good meeting and the counselor wants to have another meeting, but wants to talk to George’s co-parent first – at least over the phone.

Now George feels guilty. He knows that his ex is going to be angry that he took the child to this counselor without asking for an agreement. Think about George’s choices.

  1. Say nothing to his co-parent and tell the counselor that she said its fine and doesn’t want to be involved? (Which you know isn’t true.)

  2. Ask the counselor to call her, so he doesn’t have to deal directly with her about this subject?

  3. Tell her himself, preparing himself for her upset feelings and what he’s going to say, trying to focus on the future and jointly deciding whether their child can continue with this counselor.

Another Example

Sometimes we feel guilty when we do something good, such as saying “No” to someone. This may be exactly what you need to do, but it may feel uncomfortable in certain circumstances.

Suppose Denise feels guilty for taking her child to day care while she goes to work all day. When Denise drops off her 3-year-old daughter, she kicks and screams not to be left behind all day. Denise feels guilty, so she promises to take her to restaurant for dinner instead of eating at home. But then, after work, they go to the restaurant and have a miserable time, because her daughter is making noise and wants to run around, and their partially eaten meals cost Denise a lot of money.

What could Denise do in the future, so that she manages her guilt and thinks of better solutions? Write 3 options:

  1. ________________________

  2. ________________________

  3. ________________________

Which one would you pick, and why? ___________________________________________________________________________________

Flexible Thinking

Hopefully, you used your flexible thinking in coming up with ideas for Denise. Remember, it’s what she does now that matters the most. Any parent can change the future by learning from the past.

In this example above, it’s important that Denise not let her guilt decide her actions, but that she still pays attention to her decision about the restaurant and decide if she should do anything different in the future. In some cases, such as using day care to keep a job, there is no good reason to feel guilty, just because it is temporarily upsetting to her daughter. There’s no need for her to apologize or try to make up for doing what is a reasonable decision under the circumstances.

Questions to ask yourself

Here’s some good questions to ask yourself when you’re feeling guilty:

  • Have I done an appropriate, but do I just feel bad about it because it’s upsetting to someone else? (This is like Denise’s situation.)

  • Have I done a behavior that I believe I should not have done? (This is like George’s situation.) If so:

    • Should I apologize? (Sometimes this helps a lot, but don’t let apologizing replace making changes for the future.)

  • Should I change my behavior in the future? (George should be more careful to make joint decisions, don’t you think?)

  • Is there something I need to do to repair the behavior I did? (In George’s case, it will usually help to just say what happened and then focus on what to now.)


Guilt is a normal emotion that should get our attention, but then it should be a managed emotion by using our flexible thinking about our future options. Some people got an overdose of guilt in childhood, so that it triggers intense feelings that are hard to manage. But by thinking about which type of guilt we’re feeling, we can make better decisions for our future behavior – without letting the past control us.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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