Shame, Guilt and Bipolar

A manic or hypomanic episode (mild or severe) can lead a person to taking actions that may be unhealthy, unwise, or even harmful to self or others.  This can lead, afterwards, to feelings of guilt and shame.  We feel bad about what we have done, but we don’t always know how to move on and make amends.  These feelings can then contribute to a subsequent depressive mood and make it harder to begin to heal.

Guilt and shame, how we evaluate ourselves, are a part of life, but they are not always worked through in a healthy way.  We speak of “a heavy load of guilt” and recognize the experience of carrying guilty feelings for long-ago mistakes that we don’t expect to ever be free from.

Dr. Brené Brown researches the experience of shame and guilt, and draws some important distinctions between the two.  In her formulation, shame is feeling “I am bad” and guilt is feeling “I did something bad”.  Shame, therefore, is harmful, while guilt can lead to apologies, reparations, forgiveness and further growth.

Guilt can motivate change

So, if you overspend your credit cards, insult someone or otherwise behave badly during a manic episode (or any time, really) guilt can motivate you to find ways to repair the damage and learn from your mistakes.  Seeking forgiveness or making amends is not easy, and requires courage to reach out, but it is positive action in response to specific barriers.  Shame, on the other hand may lead you to retreat, hunker down, cut off from support networks, and even to stop trying to move ahead in life.

Shame can get you stuck

Shame, on the other hand is not a productive emotion.  It devalues you and gives you a false sense of wrongness or badness, while hiding your true value and goodness from your consciousness.  Dr. Brown suggests three main ways people can combat the feeling of shame:

  1. Talk to yourself with love

Often feelings of shame and guilt cycle around in the mind until it is hard to escape.  More guilt makes us more ashamed and more shame tells us that there is no solution.  If your self-talk is moving in these directions, Dr. Brown suggests imagining that it’s a friend who has done what you feel ashamed of.  What would you tell another person whom you love in this situation?  Tell yourself that, you deserve love, too.

2. Reach out to someone else

In the same vein, we all need to be cultivating our support networks and getting help from friends.  It’s not easy to reach out and ask for help when the mind is swamped with feelings of shame, but the rewards can be tremendous.  An outside opinion is going to be more objective and less judgmental than your own, and it can be liberating to realize that others don’t judge you as harshly as you judge yourself.

3. Tell your story

Let someone know exactly what you are feeling and why.  Lay it all out on the table and look at it together.  This retelling is not like the ruminating that can go around and around inside your own head, rather, it gets it out and requires you to explain all the mitigating factors that a good listener will take into account when hearing your story.  Telling it all to someone else can be cathartic.

Shame and guilt are a part of life, but they don’t have to define all of life.  Learning specific tools and approaches to feelings of guilt and shame will allow us to use our feelings productively without letting them control us.