Posts tagged “the difference between shame and guilt

Help from the Iceberg


There is something fascinating about icebergs – the way they fall into the sea from their glacial upbringing, their massive size and heft, and the mysteries and stories that surround them. The fateful sinking of the unsinkable Titantic in 1912 is a famous example of iceberg lore.

Partly because the fresh water from which icebergs are formed is less dense that the salt water in which they float, only about 10% of the iceberg is visible above the water line. This is where the phrase “tip of the iceberg” comes from. The part of the iceberg you can see may look huge, but it is only a small fraction of its total size. It’s the 90% underneath the water that really forms the mass of the iceberg.


The science of an iceberg has actually helped me to understand some elements of choice theory a little better. Two of choice theory’s key elements include 1) the basic needs, and 2) the quality world. For me, the basic needs include –

Purpose and Meaning
Love and Belonging
Power and Achievement
Freedom and Autonomy
Fun and Joy
Survival and Safety

As a review –

Every human being has a unique set of basic needs that were passed on from his/her biological parents.
While every person arrives with a set of basic needs, no one arrives with instructions on how to meet them. From birth to death we are involved with learning to effectively meet our needs.
Our basic needs vary. A person can have a low need for fun and a high need for power. Many different combinations of need strengths can exist.
The needs want to be met. The stronger the need, the greater the urgency to fulfill it.
The need strengths do not change over time.

Glasser described the quality world as a special picture book in our head in which we collect pictures of the people, things, places, ideas, and activities that help us meet one or more of our basic needs. We begin to create this picture album from the moment we are born. We place people and things in our personal picture album; no one can force their way in uninvited. We can also take people and things out of our quality world, although that can be a very painful process. Our quality world represents the people, things, and ideas that are the most need-satisfying to us. As a result we put a lot of energy and effort into creating circumstances that match the pictures we have created. Problems can arise when we try to force others to match the pictures in our quality world. Choice theory reminds us, though, that the only person we can control is ourselves.

Screenshot 2014-11-05 21.11.15

The iceberg represents a helpful picture at this point. The part of the iceberg that is under the water, the huge 90% part of the iceberg, is similar to the basic needs. The basic needs are of huge importance in our lives. They exert an influence that is hard to overstate. Yet, like the invisible underwater portion of the iceberg, our basic needs are not easily seen or identified. There is no blood test, no x-ray, no brain scan that reveals what our need strengths are.


We get good clues about our basic needs, though, from the part of the iceberg we can see, that 10% above the water line that is comparable to our quality world picture books. How we behave in different life settings – with our families, at work, at play, when we have spare time, when things are going well, and when things are going not so well – provides us with good clues as to our basic need strengths. Understanding our personal basic needs and being aware of our own quality world pictures that help us meet those needs will go a long way toward us achieving happiness and mental health.


I mentioned Dr. Brene Brown, the author of Daring Greatly, in the last blog and I want to close with a couple of things she said that reminded me of the iceberg principle. She writes –

When we feel shame, we are most likely to protect ourselves by blaming something or someone, rationalizing our lapse, offering a disingenuous apology, or hiding out.

Shame seems to come from that invisible, immense underwater region of the iceberg that we can’t see and probably don’t want to see. She goes on to write –

When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn’t align with our values, guilt—not shame—is most often the driving force.

Guilt isn’t something that I want or feel comfortable with, but it is a part of the iceberg I can see, and therefore I can deal with it and make things right.


Now priced at $18.51 on Amazon; 21 reviews have been submitted.

Now priced at $18.51 on Amazon; 21 reviews have been submitted.

The eBook version can be accessed at –

The paperback version can be accessed at –

or from Amazon at –

Signed copies of Champion of Choice can be accessed through me at –

Good News About Guilt


During one of our interviews for the biography, Glasser said something that caught my ear. Maybe it was my religious upbringing that acted like Velcro to his comments on guilt, but whatever it was the comments have stuck with me ever since.

One of the girls Glasser worked with at the Ventura School seemed to have a breakthrough, and upon realizing she needed to start being truthful with those trying to help her, began revealing the details of her destructive past. She felt a lot of guilt and hoped to be forgiven.

The Ventura School for Girls, before it was moved to Ojai.

The Ventura School for Girls, before it was moved to Ojai.

Recalling this later, Glasser wrote in Reality Therapy (1965) that, “Instead of forgiving her, which used to be my natural impulse before I discovered how wrong it is therapeutically, I told her she was right to feel miserable and probably would continue to feel bad for the next few weeks. In reality therapy,” he continued, “it is important not to minimize guilt when it is deserved.”

From my own upbringing the idea of guilt had been a kind of bad word, something you needed to stay away from, and even to be cleansed from, so considering it from this matter of fact perspective was ear-catching. The following excerpt from Champion of Choice (2014) further explains his perspective.

When I questioned Glasser on that stance, he replied, “Yeh, yeh, I think guilt is a perfectly good emotion. I have nothing against guilt.” He added: “Well, the girls used to ask me this question, ‘Dr. Glasser, will you forgive me for the things I’ve done?’ You know they have a little religious background, some of them, and I said, ‘That’s not up to me to forgive you. I won’t hold what you’ve done against you, but in terms of forgiving that’s something you have to work out with your own self. I can’t forgive you. You did something wrong. You did it. The best way, if you’ve done something wrong, is to stop doing it, and maybe even treat the people you wronged, if you treated people wrong, better. That’s my advice, but that again up to you.’”

But if someone, like a person may come into my private office and say, ‘I feel so guilty, and I don’t know why.’ I said, ‘What have you done wrong?’ And that came as a new concept. Guilt without sin is a very common concept among people. It’s like you carry around the sin of the world or something like that. I said, ‘Well, if you can tell me something you’ve done really wrong, then I could certainly appreciate that you feel guilty about it, and I think that’s good. The guilt will prevent you from doing it again. But if you’re all upset and worked up and you’ve done nothing wrong, then I have no interest in it. It’s up to you.’”   pg. 111

Guilt is a huge factor when it comes to mental health. Not dealing with guilt effectively leads to a poor self-concept, broken relationships, and often a series of trips to a counselor or therapist. Religion is supposed to help us deal with guilt, but unfortunately, religion often does the opposite.


Thanks to a tip from a friend I was alerted to the work of Dr. Brene Brown, who does research on shame and guilt. In her book, Daring Greatly (2012), Brown states that “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither.”

Shame is a foreboding sense of unworthiness that is powered by the belief that, at the core of who I am as a person, “I am bad.” Guilt, on the other hand, has to do with a specific behavior or mistake. Instead of thinking I am bad, our self-talk would say that “I did something bad.” Interestingly, while shame leads toward self-protection, blaming others, and rationalizing our imperfections, guilt can prod us toward apologizing and changing a behavior.

Glasser alerted me to the idea that guilt can be useful and serves a purpose when it 1) causes us to stay aligned with our deeply held values, and 2) helps us stay connected to others. Brown seems to view guilt in the same way, that it can be a healthy part of our lives, but emphasizes how shame is different altogether from guilt. Shame causes us to isolate rather than reach out, to become silent rather than communicate openly, and to wrap ourselves in aloneness rather than foster intimacy with those who are important to us.

It might be hard to believe there is good news in guilt, but apparently there is.


Now priced at $18.51 on Amazon; 21 reviews have been submitted.

Now priced at $18.51 on Amazon; 21 reviews have been submitted.

The eBook version can be accessed at –

The paperback version can be accessed at –

or from Amazon at –

Signed copies of Champion of Choice can be accessed through me at –

%d bloggers like this: