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Commentary: Healthy guilt vs. destructive shame

Editor's note: This is the continuation of a series of columns addressing mental health issues.

By Jon Koll, MS, licensed psychologist, Alexandria, MN

The behavior of family members in every family is driven by a set of values, such as honesty or responsibility. Of course, values or beliefs can also be negative, such as xenophobia or sexism. Regardless of the nature of a family's values, all families respond in some way when a family member violates a family value. In shame-based families, the person in violation is labelled as "bad." Human flaw is not acceptable and people who make mistakes are thought of as defective. Anger in such families almost always results in harsh judgment and rejection, at least for a period of time.

Fear of rejection is a central underlying phenomenon in shame-based families. Because of this fear family members have a very difficult time openly addressing individual struggles. It is simply not safe to do so. It becomes easier to blame others.

In healthy, guilt-based families, fear of rejection does not exist and the family becomes a safe place to disarm, to be authentic. In such families, human weakness and flaws are seen as normal, predictable and unavoidable. Regardless of such weakness or flaw, humans are seen as inherently good, capable of evolving from one way of being to a new and better way of being, and, especially, as capable of learning from mistakes. In healthy families, parents understand that family members need permission to be imperfect, encouragement to grow, and gentle confrontation when in error.

While the purpose of confronting someone in a shame-based family is often to attack, get even, or punish, in a healthy, guilt-based family, the purpose of confronting someone is to bring about a change in behavior and to help family members develop successfully — to help them make self-strengthening decisions and to use adaptive behavior. In a healthy family, anger is seen as legitimate and necessary. It is understood that the feeling of anger exists because the person feeling it believes that an injustice of some sort has occurred. Anger provides the energy necessary to address the injustice.

However, anger is always expressed with profound respect and safety. In a healthy family, parents model direct, honest communication which is non-violent and not abusive. Healthy-guilt based families are a laboratory for personal disarmament. One can identify, wrestle with, and overcome self-defeating behavior or ways of thinking, knowing that it's OK to flounder a bit along the way.