What No One Tells You About Guilt and Embarrassment

Hands up who has been ‘guilt-tripped’ into working late to finish a report or assignment. OK, hands down. Hands up anyone who has felt embarrassed by their dad’s dancing. Anyone? Yeah. Well, here’s the thing:

Guilt and embarrassment are not a useful emotions.

What do I mean, ‘useful’? I learned recently that there are, in essence, four emotions. And those four emotions are useful things. The four essential emotions are:

  1. Happy 
  2. Sad
  3. Fear
  4. Anger

And they all have their uses. Happiness gives us a sense of wellbeing and self-worth. It brings us joy and makes all seem right with the world. Sadness gives us a way of expressing the other – it allows us to grieve and empathise. You’ve heard of fight or flight? Well fear kicks in and keeps us alive from the big angry tiger. Sometimes (in my experience), fear goes a bit far in my brain so I feel the fear of Christmas shopping. Anger, when used in an assertive manner, gets things done; stops moral lines being crossed.

I was asked to imagine these four emotions as pots of paint. White for happy; blue for sad; yellow for fear and red for anger. By mixing these colours, you get a wide emotional range, but the essence is always four colours.


They are useful in the sense that they get things done, they are inherently human (or animal), they are common to us all, shared by us all, and we all experience them.

Note – guilt is not one of these emotions. Neither is embarrassment.

They are human constructs built to do other things than what is helpful and useful to ourselves as humans.

I remember having to read a poem at a school Christmas concert once (when I was a teacher, not a pupil). As I stood up, I tripped over someones bag. That was the first time I realised that I didn’t need to feel embarrassed. Many people would ‘literally die with embarrassment’ (they mean figuratively), but it’s not that bad. What human hasn’t tripped over something? All of us. So what is there to be embarrassed about? We’re all human, we all trip up, but we don’t all need to feel embarrassed. Neither do we need to feel guilty.


Again, guilt is a construct to make us repent for the ‘wrong’ things we have done. Here’s the truth of it: there is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. We have a set of agreed constructs of right and wrong which form the basis of shared morals and then we have laws which deem right from wrong. Other than that, there is no right or wrong about anything else like eating another mince pie at Christmas or having a duvet day and doing nothing, other than what other humans have told us and what we want to believe.

So choose. You will trip up – so will everyone else – there’s no need to feel embarrassed. You will do things that are ‘wrong’ by someone’s construct – there’s no need to feel guilty.

You can have a splendidly varied emotional palette using the helpful emotions.

Have you ever felt embarrassed or guilty and then noticed you didn’t have to? Let me know in the comments below.


One thought on “What No One Tells You About Guilt and Embarrassment

  1. Excellent post, as always! On a related note, I have been advised recently about the negative power of the word ‘should’. We use it out of guilt or embarrasment, and the action that we ‘should’ be doing becomes an output of that unhelpful emotion. A simple (simple to say, not always to do) way to resolve that is to change the thought of ‘ I should’ into the the thought that ‘I want to’. Once that train of thought begins, the subsequent action becomes a positive step and a positive outcome is more likely e.g. ‘I want to eat more fruit and veg to make myself feel better’ rather than ‘I should eat more fruit and veg because I’m ginormous’ etc. I hadn’t linked this change of thought pattern to the emotions of guilt and embarassment until reading your blog; it now makes far more sense. Happy new year!

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