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Ultimate Guide To Dealing With Guilt, Shame, and Fear Of Punishment

Updated: May 20, 2020

A proven formula for letting go of guilt, victim mentality and self-sabotage.


Guilt can be a paralyzing emotion.

Once we feel guilty and start overthinking, it is nearly impossible to make any decision and move on. We just think and think and we want to do something to correct the situation so we can feel better. Until then — peace of mind is impossible.

The cause of guilt is doing something wrong.  The effect of guilt is punishment. “I did something wrong, now I deserve to be punished.”

Most people are not aware of the punishment element, yet it still drives their behavior.

Children know this intuitively. I remember getting my first D from Math at school. I was 12 and I knew I screwed up. After I came home I received an endless talk from my mom. I remember asking:” Mom, why don’t you rather slap me so this can be over?”

Punishment buys us freedom.

When they announce “Guilty” at the court verdict, we go to prison se we can be free again. When we cross the speed limit, we pay the fine and we are free. When we feel we hurt someone, we want to do something for them so we can feel better. Better = free again.

That is why some people believe that revenge will make them feel better.  Someone did wrong to them, they feel hurt and now they have the right to “settle the debt”. If it is buried deep in the unconscious, it feels like the most normal thing to do.

Guilt is a destructive substitute for responsibility and learning.

It is also one of the most difficult emotions to deal with because it can be hard to notice and has a tricky mechanism that keeps it locked in place.

Understanding the nature of guilt allows you to spot it, release it and heal from its effects.

Table of Contents: The Evolution of Guilt - How do we create guilt & How do we pass it on to the next generation? The Relief Mechanism: Why Do We Hold on to Guilt? - Why punishment feels good & Strategies for self-punishment A consequence of guilt: Codependent relationships - The Victim, Tyrant, and Savior identities How to let go of guilt: 3 Steps for Healing Conclusion: You were never guilty, you were just confused. Take action!


The Evolution of Guilt

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” -proverb

Guilt is not built-in the child when it is born. It has to make an effort to create it.

How do we create guilt?

Every child is born free of beliefs, rights/wrongs, good/bad and any judgment whatsoever.

It is also born completely helpless and its survival is fully dependent on its parents.

To survive, it needs to learn how to get along with the adults and the external world. Therefore it starts adjusting its internal world to fit the external one.

A developing child’s brain is like a sponge — it sucks in all the information from the external world and creates its logic (if-then) that makes sense to it. The older it gets, the better judgment it has so the logic becomes more accurate. But early on, these judgments and logical links can have literally zero adult common sense.

For example: If I smile, my mommy smiles. If I yell, I get attention. But also — if I look sad, I’ll receive love OR If I break stuff, I get attention. If I [behavior], then [reaction].

In the ideal world, every child develops confidence through learning to trust and love itself and others. This is achieved through growing up in a safe environment to experience and learn, that is created by its parents through their unconditional love.

There is no punishment, judgment or “you should have known better”, but safe and nurturing support in exploring and experiencing the world as a loved human being.

To this day, you know the feeling very well.

A feeling of unconditional love changes our body chemistry and emotional state. Just think of someone you truly love. Someone you hold dear, someone whom you unconditionally wish good, no matter if you receive anything back or not. Someone so beautiful to you that you wish to nurture them and to support that beauty and goodness. Someone whom if you give, it feels as if you gave to yourself. Someone, for whom you are eternally grateful. Someone, who you truly love.

For a full experience, take a deep breath, read it once again and then close your eyes and feel the feeling fully.

Did you feel any physical sensation in your body?

Chances are that you felt a warm, expanding tingling on your chest and maybe a little smile on your face.

For a child, who does not speak, talk and understand, a child who has no idea whatsoever about what is going on in this world and only has a feeling as a sense of direction, you can multiply this feeling by 10.000x.

For a child, this is the most beautiful feeling in the world.

Because of that, any slightest parental behavior that contains withholding of love becomes a form of punishment for the child (not talking to it, lack of emotional presence, physical punishment, etc.) and the child is ready to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to prevent this behavior from ever happening again.

For a child, withholding love is the worst punishment it can receive.

In the ideal world, love is never withheld from a child.

However, we live in the real world, which is imperfect and far from the ideal one. Every child is taken care of by the imperfect parents, who also had imperfect parents, who also had imperfect parents, etc.

Inevitably, a child in its endless playfulness, curiosity and zero patience will experience withholding love and punishment after the parental patience ran out or after parental insecurities and imperfections show up.

Some punishments are subtle, some are more obvious.

“[Mom does not talk to me.]” “Do not talk back rudely or you won’t play PC games.“ “Always say “good day” to others or dad will be mad at you.” “Have good grades or you won’t get money.“ “But also — look both sides before you cross the road or mom will yell at you.”

The behaviors causing withholding of parental love shape the child’s understanding of the world. It does not know that withholding is caused by its parents’ own mishandled emotions and insecurities. Its understanding does not go that far.

It just naively concludes — “I must have done X that made me deserve this pain.”

The child, therefore, embraces punishment as a natural and logical consequence of certain behaviors.

“If I do X, I will be punished. I rather do not do X.”

The intention is good — parents want to keep the child safe, maintain their comfort and balance AND the child adapts to the outer world.

When the punishment happens for the first time, it is unexpected and painful. The fourth time, it is more expected and equally painful. The eighth time, it sees the pain coming and therefore starts to fear it.