How to deal with and understand the emotions of guilt and shame as a musician

How to deal with and understand the emotions of guilt and shame as a musician

Guilt and shame are unavoidable emotions we all have to deal with as human beings. They belong to a spectrum of feelings we experience every day that dictates how we interact with others and how we are affected by our own and other people’s perceptions of us. Although similar, guilt can be defined as a feeling that “I’ve done something bad, and shame, as a feeling that “I’m a bad person”.  Both are learned behaviours to keep human beings in line.  A little bit of guilt and shame here and there works for most normal people, but to a successful musician, these emotions can be seriously difficult to grapple with.

Let’s talk, for the sake of argument, about successful musicians in the top one percent of mainstream artists. When you’re big in this industry, you’re marketed to pop up everywhere – anyone who listens to music, watches TV, spends time on social media, or reads magazines and newspapers get’s to know about you.  What you think, eat, say, do, and who you hang out with becomes public information that you can be judged and criticized for at any time of the night or day.

The price of fame is that you come under excoriating public scrutiny, and your relationship with everything and everyone changes, including your close friends and family. It’s okay to begin with but after a while trust levels tend to go down because you feel detached and confused by the increased complexity of emotions that come with these changes. You can start to suffer feelings of guilt and shame and disconnectedness – completely the opposite of what you thought you would feel before experiencing fame. This can bring up tons of grief and a longing for the anonymous life you led before.  You can end up depressed – in a state where you feel no one can help you. Am I right?

It was the recent suicides of Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell that made me reflect and wonder why this keeps happening; the fact that no fame or fortune could get to the root of who both artists thought they truly were; that nothing could be done to change their perception of themselves at the crucial time.  Neither of them could find a way to reach out for help – from the fear and darkness and mental delusion they were experiencing. Even surrounded by the love of their friends and family.  They just couldn’t get there, and sought oblivion instead.

These emotions that we carry are deeply ingrained into our psyche; installed in all of us by our parents initially and then our school teachers, and other authority figures, as a safety mechanism to prevent us from transgressing in society.  This happens long before we ever show any musical talent or ability to perform.  From birth, we are taught and conditioned as human beings, to conform and behave morally well – something that, as future musicians and creative disrupters of society, we start rebelling against the minute we grab our first guitar and holler down the mic.

I am not denying that artists or musicians have archetypically a much more pronounced human need to be a person of significance than the ordinary Joe or Joanna Bloggs. If musicians just needed to eat, sleep, breathe, reproduce and make music, life would be much simpler.  But you and I know life isn’t like that for a musician, particularly a deeply committed and talented one, and I wouldn’t be writing this if it were. The ego has to be huge to individuate. To be a great performer you have to have massive self-belief to be able to stand out. The downside is it makes you susceptible to being hit by the sledgehammer of guilt and shame when you doubt yourself, and no amount of fame, or money can take that away.  Sometimes the only way to fix the feelings is to use sex, drugs and alcohol. Another way to fix is to experience the euphoria that comes with performing especially to large audiences or when you surround yourself with a coterie or entourage of people who work for you. These audiences can become complicit in your attempt to avoid your feelings.  Both artist and audience engage in a kind of communion that is massively seductive; the act of performing, and working or hanging out together has the power to transport everyone collectively to a conscious plain where for a short time all fears and concerns are removed. But it’s only temporary, and before long, as the artist, you’re back feeling the same old uncomfortable feelings that come from your default thinking, giving space for good ol’ guilt and shame to have their say.

To do the inner work that is required to grow and become kinder, happier and more compassionate towards ourselves only comes from accepting who we truly are, warts and all.  That means we need to learn to become more honest with ourselves, and with that we become more spiritual.  We have to recognize that, as human beings, we all have potential for big egos; that we can all be prone to feelings of guilt and shame, which particularly as artists can be excessive. We can learn to accept our feelings as passing phases, but it takes practice and requires effort to do that.

We need to remember we are spiritual beings first living in a human body, rather than the other way round.  We have to learn to master our minds, by reaching out to others and learning from our spiritual masters. We have to seek out purpose and mission which goes beyond our smaller selves. The dangerous times to look out for are how you feel and react in between those times when you are not creating and not in flow. That’s usually when you’re not making music and faced with living a mundane and ordinary life, or when you’re tired and overworked and haven’t been taking enough care of yourself, or been partying too much and doing stuff that you know isn’t good for you; that is when we can all be very vulnerable and open to attack from our negative emotions.

If you are interested in learning how to manage your lives, business, and emotions better, get in touch with Gina at