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Understanding Shame and Guilt

In this blog post we will be talking about the difference between shame and guilt, where shame comes from, and how you can begin to heal from feeling shame.

Guilt is generally a reaction to something you have done.  It may be something you have actually done, like telling a lie. Or it may be something you’ve done or thought of doing that really isn’t wrong, but you still feel guilt about it anyway. More about that a bit later. Guilt is an emotion that is experienced when you violate your own values.

Shame, on the other hand, is less about something you have done, and more about feeling a sense of disgrace about who you are. Let me go back to the example of lying. If you lie and you feel guilty, you may think, “Lying is wrong. I should not have told that lie. I feel bad about doing that.” Shame says “I told a lie, I am no good. Something is wrong with me for having done something like that. I feel bad about myself.”

Guilt is a message, sometimes justified, that notifies you that you are deviating from what you consider to be right.  Shame is a feeling that tells you that you may not be adequate or worthy. It’s far deeper than feeling bad about a behavior – the person experiencing shame can feel inadequate and unworthy. In fact, shame can be a part of a person’s everyday way of being in the world – a sense that they are not good enough.

Let me back up for a moment and talk about feeling guilt when you haven’t done anything wrong. Where does that come from? If you are in a situation and doing your best with the resources you have, why feel guilty about the outcome? One reason can be taking responsibility for the feelings of others. Maybe you have plans to go to a family gathering, when a friend asks you for a ride to work. You say no, but carry a lingering feeling of guilt throughout the family event. Or you take a test in school, and don’t get the grade you – and maybe your parents or peers – expected to see. In each case, you probably did the best you could, someone else may have felt disappointed, and your sense of guilt is partly connected with their emotions. Guilt is not necessarily a bad emotion. It can help us hone our own moral compass, signally us when we act in ways that don’t fit our values. In the previous example about telling a lie, guilt lets you know that lying is an uncomfortable behavior, and it can end up doing more harm than good. Guilt teaches you that lying is wrong, and that you don’t want to do it. You can learn from the experience, forgive yourself, and move on with new knowledge.

Shame, though, can have deeper roots. Sometimes we are wounded in childhood, whether by our parents or teachers or friends. A part of us believes that we are fundamentally not good enough, and when we don’t measure up to expectations (whether our own or someone else’s), we feel unworthy and ashamed. Shame tells us we are bad, or not worthy of love or acceptance.

How to deal with feelings of shame:

Be aware of your thoughts: The next time you face a situation that makes you feel ashamed, examine the thoughts that come up. Then, challenge them. Are they true, or are they just old tapes that tear you down and make you doubt yourself? What more realistic, positive messages can you replace them with? As you keep practicing this over and over it will become a normal part of your thinking pattern.

Examine where you first felt shame: Were you a child, unable to make a hit in softball? Did you develop slower than the other kids in your class? Do you lack the artistic talent that your sibling excels in? Was your family life dysfunctional, such as alcoholic, violent, or otherwise not as nurturing as all children need?

Reach out for support and healing: It’s never too late to find acceptance and nurturing, whether from friends, family, support groups, or even a professional counselor. Ultimately, your goal might be to be able to nurture and comfort yourself.

While guilt may have some uses in helping us correct behaviors that we want to change, shame is nearly always destructive. Take the time to explore feelings that distort your perception of yourself and the world you live in, and know that there is always hope to say goodbye to shame and feel better about yourself.

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