Guilt vs Shame

Guilt vs Shame

The terms guilt and shame are often used interchangeably. While they may appear to be synonymous and may often be correlated, their true nature indicates important distinctions. Brené Brown, who has spent her career researching shame and vulnerability, proffers poignantly simple definitions of guilt and shame based on her work.

GUILT = I DID SOMETHING BAD.

SHAME = I AM BAD.

The former indicates an outward focus, the latter an internal emphasis. Guilt, while uncomfortable, can productively encourage reflection and action. Shame, on the other hand, “is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Let’s explore these concepts more in depth …

The Adaptive Nature of Guilt

When we feel guilty as a result of something that we did, it motivates us to repair a situation, to make amends, and to behave differently in the future. “We can learn from guilt and grow from it by looking at our behavior, recognizing how it did not align with our values, and taking steps to rectify that and make different choices in the future” states Christine Menna, LCSW. It can give us a sense of agency, reminding us that we have control over the words we use and the choices we make. Thus, guilt is often an adaptive response. We take responsibility for ourselves, so that we don’t remain stuck in our own self-interests but are able to thoughtfully fulfill our moral expectations.

The Destructive Impact of Shame

Shame, by contrast, shuts us down. We take on an experience as a negative assessment of who we are as a person. This punitive inward response does not allow space for a constructive, reparative process. It instead persuades us to avoid. Shame sends a message that we are not worthy of connection, an essential part of being human. Because we believe that we don’t belong, we retreat from self and others. We also doubt that we can evolve and improve. Shame is associated with addiction, violence, eating disorders, aggression, depression and bullying. Thus, while it may mask itself in messaging that suggests that punishment and self-destructive behavior are necessary and will “fix us” in some way, it actually does quite the opposite.

Embracing Shame Resilience

Significantly, “We all experience shame. It’s a universal experience” states Menna. The concern then becomes how much space shame takes up in our lives and what we do when we notice it. While it may feel tempting and logical to try to resist shame when it appears, it’s not something that we fight off and conquer. However, we can practice what Brown calls shame resilience. She identifies four key factors that lead to shame resilience:

  1. Identify shame and recognize its triggers
  2. Practice critical awareness: question the messages shame is sending and consider if they are realistic.
  3. Reach out: connect with others and share your story.
  4. Speaking shame: Put shame into words and ask for your needs.

All of these steps imply authenticity with our experience and the vulnerability it takes to share it with others. They also suggest maintaining our values in the face of shame and engaging in compassion with self and others along the way. When we move into the very heart of connection rather than veer away from it, it can feel uncomfortable. This is exactly what shame wants, since it can only survive (and thrives) when being nameless, soundless and disconnected. When we work through the discomfort with awareness, we can meaningfully grow in relation to ourselves and others. When these steps are active parts of our process, we move from shame to empathy. We heal within ourselves and in relation to others.

Creating awareness of shame vs guilt

Shame and guilt … they are not as similar as they may appear! The next time you notice the word “shame” or “guilt” popping up in your mind, take a moment to pause and consider your choice of words and if it aligns with your experience. When we work with awareness, we can create an adaptive response to either of these experiences. And, if shame is having a detrimental impact on your life, consider reflecting on and incorporating these shame resilience steps.

If guilt or shame are impacting your life, you don’t have to navigate these feelings alone. At Sōhum Therapy, we offer compassionate support and proven strategies to help you build resilience and reclaim your sense of self-worth. Reach out today to start your journey towards healing. Contact us now to schedule a consultation and take the first step towards a healthier, more empowered you.

Reference:

– Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.

Christine Menna

Christine Menna

Christine specializes in working with motivated clients who feel disconnected from themselves, desire more fulfilling relationships, and seek to live their most authentic and value-driven lives. Christine takes a compassionate and direct approach that focuses on clients’ goals. She incorporates mindfulness-based techniques and somatic exercises to deepen the therapeutic experience and help clients achieve their desired results.

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