Understanding your emotions and the ability to forgive.

Guilt and shame are feelings we’ve all had to deal with at some point in our lives. Whether from talking behind someone’s back, overeating or the use/abuse of various substances, these emotions are familiar to some degree.

Dr. Joseph R. Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University, calls the emotions guilt and shame moral effects — emotions that are linked to our moral behavior.

“The data shows people will experience either guilt or shame. And for shame-prone people, it really is a worse emotion than guilt. With shame, you begin to devalue yourself,” Ferrari says.

Some guilt-prone people realize their actions have hurt someone, and they typically try to rebuild the relationship or rectify the situation.

He also warns that sometimes a well-meant apology can lead to unexpected consequences. The effort to right whatever wrong has occurred generally ends in one of two ways: The offended person either accepts the apology or doesn’t. A number of factors can leave pain and unwillingness to accept the apology.

“Because you’ve thrown this issue back to the other person, it makes them look like the bad guy if they don’t accept your apology. It can really manipulate you to have to accept an apology,” Ferrari says. “It’s very interesting these relationships and paradoxes we have.”

The role of forgiveness

One of the more complicated factors is the role forgiveness plays for those experiencing guilt and shame. Though many people are taught forgiveness through their religious upbringings, it’s still one of the hardest things for people to do.

“I believe we are created to always forgive, no matter how bad the shame is,” Ferrari says. “You should always forgive yourself. But it’s hard. We need self-forgiving and self-compassion. I’ve found the best way to forgive yourself is to go back and do something to repair that relationship. Because it’s in giving that we get. If I give compassion and respect to this other person, give them support and value, I in turn begin to feel respect and value toward myself.”

People struggling with shame often convince themselves of the need to suffer for their actions.

“It’s a very common, but false belief,” Ferrari says. “They think, ‘If I suffer now I’ll have good things happen to me in future.’”

The other side of forgiveness is holding a grudge against the one who offended you. The stress of holding a grudge is detrimental to both physical and psychological health. When cortisol, the stress hormone, is released in the body it can lead to lower immune functions, lessened bone density and elevated blood pressure, and can interfere with learning and memory function.

“When you don’t forgive, the other person is not the prisoner, you are. You’re held down by this sort of thing. So if for no other reason, forgive so you can live,” Ferrari says. “That goes for self-forgiveness as well. You can begin to rectify the relationship and start showing yourself a little more self-compassion.”

Chad Eiler is the senior copywriter for Healthy Living Made Simple.