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Guilt, Shame, and The Good Place: A Conversation with Therapists Angela Nguyen + Helen Garcia

In this episode of Yellow Chair Collective’s podcast, therapist Angela Nguyen discusses a theme she often addresses in session with clients – guilt, shame, and the pressure to be a ‘good person.’ With host Helen Garcia, she discusses how the sitcom show The Good Place can address this theme and offer some helpful lessons and reminders.

The Good Place follows four humans, an immortal not-demon, and an all-knowing not-robot as they navigate the afterlife’s system for categorizing a ‘good life’ versus a ‘bad life.’ The characters are relatable, the humor is both witty and silly, and the questions that the characters reckon with are complex and poignant.

For many, this is exactly what we are looking for when it comes to art and media. We often turn to TV and film when we want to enjoy a story and experience an emotional journey outside of ourselves. Living increasingly complicated and stressful lives can mean that we look towards more light-hearted content. Sitcomes like these can offer comfort, a break from stress, and a reminder that there are reasons to laugh. When we are feeling our lowest, we can experience a kind of catharsis through another’s narrative. This can feel especially helpful when we are struggling with painful feelings like guilt or shame.

Guilt versus Shame

Many clients come to therapy wanting to tackle feelings like guilt and shame. These two painful feelings can often be difficult to parse out, as they are both rooted in feelings about yourself. However, their exact mechanisms are a bit different.

Guilt is the feeling that we experience when we believe we have done something that goes against our morals or values. In other words, it arises when we feel that we have done something ‘bad.’ Guilt, while uncomfortable, is not necessarily a ‘bad’ emotion to feel. In some cases, it can be the feeling that pushes us to restorative actions, like apologizing or being more conscientious in the future. It can be problematic when we feel guilty for actions that others have told us are ‘bad,’ even though we might not necessarily agree with those definitions.

Shame is the feeling that we experience when we believe that we ourselves are ‘bad.’ Rather than being focused on an action or behavior, it is focused on our view and perspective of ourselves. This can impact our identity, self-worth, and self-confidence. Shame can feel so significant and pervasive that it interferes with our relationships and our ability to navigate life. While there are times it can foster change, more often than not, the pain can be so uncomfortable that it feels impossible to act productively. In other words, shame and the belief that you’re a ‘bad person’ very rarely helps you become a ‘good person.’

So What Does it Mean to be a ‘Good Person’?

One of the main struggles in The Good Place is for the characters to figure out how to define what it means to be a ‘good person.’ The show’s initial system, of weighing good actions versus bad actions, is found to be a flawed one, and for good reason. Weighing an action in and of itself only considers the impact, and doesn’t account for the intent, the reasoning, or the context. The example they use in the show is buying a tomato at a grocery store. The action alone could be innocuous, but if you go down the rabbit hole, you can see how that action might be negatively affecting someone else somewhere else.

Considering all these complicated factors, it can feel impossible to choose the ‘good’ action every single time. However, the show helpfully lands on two key points. 1) You can actively choose to try to be a good person, and the trying in and of itself does matter. 2) People are more able to be ‘good’ when they have support, resources, and access to goodness around them. For folks who are struggling with guilt or shame, these points can serve as a helpful reminder that actions do not exist in a vacuum. Your impact matters, of course. Your intent and your context matter too, though. And even if you made a mistake, that one action does not have to define you forever. You can learn, you can grow, and you can surround yourself with the support you need to continue trying.

    How Does Your Childhood Impact your Behavior?

    The protagonist of The Good Place, Eleanor, is shown to have had a difficult childhood, in which she had to fend for herself. This taught her to be independent in a way that ultimately harms her relationships. Because she grew up without having her needs met, she lives her life on the defensive, always trying to protect herself. We see an opposite reaction in one of the other main characters, Tahani, who never received affirmation from her family. To compensate, she seeks validation from as many sources as possible.

    As these two characters demonstrate, our childhood experiences essentially create the blueprint for how we navigate our world. Our earliest relationships determine how we approach our understanding of ourselves, our relationships with others, and our abilities to manage our own emotional reactions. But this blueprint does not have to be permanent. When Eleanor and Tahani are finally in a place where they have friends who understand and support them, they are able to heal. They begin to find acceptance in themselves and in the people who they find truly matter to them. It is very possible to learn healthier ways to coexist with yourself and with others.

      How Do You Balance Accountability with Compassion?

      Many clients can struggle with the idea of compassion, as they feel it removes any sense of blame and any push to do better. However, we would like to offer a definition of self-compassion as one that contains kindness, forgiveness, and accountability. The Good Place really emphasizes the fact that, when people are taught and given support, they can change in ways that they may have never experienced or expected. But notably, the change happens through compassion and understanding. It doesn’t happen through punishment and self-recrimination.

      As an example, early in the show, Eleanor finds herself feeling surprisingly guilty for a mistake, and chooses to make up for it. One of the other main characters, Chidi, comments that that is proof she is growing as a person and making progress. In real life practice, this looks like taking accountability for your actions. You can recognize that you are responsible for what you have done, and that you are responsible for learning from it and making up for it. But you don’t have to criticize yourself or punish yourself. You can hold yourself accountable with kindness towards yourself as you grow.

        Can Media Be a Helpful Tool in Therapy?

        In our podcast, Angela shared that she has actually used The Good Place in her work with her own clients. Sitcoms about the complexity of being human can certainly be helpful in therapy. Sometimes, it’s more accessible to explore these topics in a way that’s a little outside of yourself. Looking at different characters’ journeys can often help you gain some perspective. Plus, many clients find that it is easier to extend compassion to others, especially when you’re not used to extending patience and compassion to yourself. Engaging in dialogue about another’s story and how it can relate to your story is a legitimate therapeutic technique. This can be the case for other shows, movies, books, and video games too.

        How Does Pop Culture Contribute to the Mental Health Conversation?

        Pop culture can bring conversations about mental health and wellbeing to the attention of the general audience, who may not be considering these topics without the prompt. Importantly, we want to note that not all representation is good representation. There can certainly be harmful representation media. But at least in The Good Place, one of the main characters has very, very obvious anxiety. He exhibits indecision and physiological symptoms, and the impact of both of these on his relationships. But the people around him do their best to understand him and accommodate him. Even when they hold him accountable for his actions, they don’t shame or mock him. Positive portrayals of mental health issues can encourage audience members to consider how they might react to their own mental health, or the concerns of those around them.

        How Can We Apply Lessons from The Good Place?

        Granted, as much as we are praising The Good Place, it is still a sitcom that cannot possible explore every question in depth. Still, Angela found that there are several lessons that can be learned from the show.

        1. When people have their needs met, and have the support and resources they need to be good, they are able to try to be good. Give yourself the time and space to learn what that it means to be a ‘good person.’
        2. When you make a mistake, it certainly matters, but it matters just as much what you do about it and what you will do about it in the future. Accountability can coexist with self-compassion.
        3. Healthy relationships take time, effort, energy, and reciprocity.
        4. Meaning and fulfillment can look very individual and unique. (The show demonstrates that different characters can find peace in different ways.)
        5. We exist in community with others, so it’s important to find a balance between taking care of ourselves and meeting the needs of others.

        Final Note

        We believe that The Good Place does a great job at grappling with questions about morality and purpose. But just like with therapy, you are welcome to take what resonates with you, and leave what doesn’t. Life is complicated. There is rarely going to be only one correct answer. You are allowed to redefine and reframe things as you grow and learn. In fact, we encourage everyone to do so. As Ted Danson’s character Michael says in the show, “What matters is if (you’re) trying to be better today than (you) were yesterday.”

        For more conversations about media and mental health, please check out our podcast on spotify, apple, or youtube!

        Seek Individual Therapy at Yellow Chair Collective in Los Angeles or New York

        If you are seeking therapy specifically tailored to your needs, consider reaching out to the culturally sensitive therapists at Yellow Chair Collective. We understand that different parts of our identities and histories can show up in different parts of our lives, and that it can make navigating relationships difficult. We also understand that there may be unique cultural and contextual factors that may influence your experiences.

        At our Los Angeles, CA, and New York City, NY-based therapy practice, we have many skilled, trauma-informed therapists who can provide an empowering therapeutic experience. For your added convenience and simplicity, we offer online therapy for anyone in the state of California or New York. We know that guilt and shame are painful experiences, and that the path to finding meaning and figuring out how to be a good person can be challenging. We want to support you on your journey. Follow the steps below to begin.

        Other Services at Yellow Chair Collective

        There are many options for treatment using online therapy in California and New York, it just depends on what you’re needing. And while we certainly service Asian American folks, we also work with individuals from other cultures, too. So, whether you’re needing support in overcoming anxiety, burnout, trauma, or PTSD, we can help. Likewise, we serve teens and couples in need of support, too. So when you start online therapy with us, you can bring your whole self, including past struggles, cultural impacts, and more.