Posted 25/01/2021 in Category 1

How Are We Going to Live This Down? Shame, Guilt and Depressive Symptoms

How Are We Going to Live This Down? Shame, Guilt and Depressive Symptoms

Shame and guilt abound in sport. We might feel shame for a poor performance or an unfair tackle on an opponent. We might feel guilty for taking a day off from our marathon training. But why do we feel shame and guilt? And how much of shame and guilt is healthy for us. After all, shame and guilt and social emotions (they involve other people) and they have stuck around through the evolutionary passage of time, so they must have some value, right? 

But in sport, we never want to miss an open goal to win the league title; we don’t want to miss the final putt to win a major or miss the conversion kick to win the Rugby World Cup – but these things happen. So let’s get to a healthy understanding about what is happening with shame, guilt and depressive symptoms. 

Kim and colleagues’ meta-analysis (a study that captures the findings of many studies) helps us understand the details and differences between shame and guilt. From 108 studies and 22, 411 participants, their study showed stronger associations between shame and depressive symptoms compared with guilt. But the story does not end there because when we understand guilt more clearly, we realise that guilt, when it is maladaptive, is exaggerated responsibility for uncontrollable events. We might feel guilty in sport context for not winning the game for our team, even though the game involves a team and a squad of players all playing their part. We might take part in sport with ‘free-floating’ guilt, which means we do not connect to any context in particular. When we think about shame; however, we know it can be internal or external. These two parts – internalised shame (e.g., judging ourselves as worthless or flawed) and external shame (e.g., feeling others judge us as objects of ridicule) play their roles in sport.

In Kim and colleagues’ study, external shame – the negative views we hold of ourselves as seen through the eyes of others – explained more of the depressive symptoms compared with internal shame – the negative views we hold of ourselves as seen through our own eyes. Many people in sport look to others to view themselves. They might claim that ‘what my coach thinks of me is all that matters’ or ‘I see myself however my fans see me’. Regrettably, these unhealthy and extreme or uncontrollable views of the self are worth exploring before they lead someone down an unhelpful and unforgiving path. The emotional underpinnings of depressive symptoms (e.g., shame and guilt) are worth exploring to bring athletes and all those involved in sport back to deeply reflective understanding of themselves and others.

No striker means to miss a goal; no basketball player means to miss a free throw. The self-exploration that one does with oneself, perhaps through diary writing or working with a close colleague, coach or sport psychologist, ought to happen in a self-compassionate and self-forgiving way. Self-forgiveness is separating you from your actions. It does not mean that we do not take responsibility – it means that we do take responsibility but healthily. We accept our level of responsibility and accountability. We apologise to ourselves and make amends. We explore the emotions like shame and guilt and see where they might be leading us astray. When we do not have someone to confide it, we often hide from shame and guilt and hide from what will help us in the long run. Like so many things in life, forgiveness is not an event – it is a process. We can learn to feel our emotions, listen to what they have to say and move forward learning from the experience. 

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Kim, T. (2011). Shame, guilt, and depressive symptoms: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 137(1), 68–96.

Image by Fábio Luciano Sorg from Pixabay