Without planning it this way, one of the first things I routinely finding myself teaching my clients is about the difference between guilt and shame. For most folks, its hard to feel a difference until their emotional vocabulary grows beyond feeling ‘good’ and ‘bad’ because in the Guilt VS Shame duel, everything feels bad. But knowing the difference between guilt and shame will help you feel less bad, take control of the bad feeling, and grow into the person you want to be.
Definitions: Guilt and Shame
We’ve got no time for fancy words that will make you re-read this 7 times. You’re welcome.
Guilt: the emotional response to having done something that goes against your values
behavior: stealing, lying, cheating, etc
thought: I did something bad, I shouldn’t have done that
Shame: the emotional response to real or perceived rejection, the intensely painful feeling that we are unloveable and do not belong
behavior: different for everyone based on their history, some examples could be misprouncing words, forgetting someone’s name or a meeting scheduled, crying in public,
thought: I’m a bad person, I’m incompetent, I’m the worst
What’d you notice?
The focus is different.
Guilt focuses on behavior, something external is the problem.
Shame focuses on Self, something internal is the problem.
Why do I feel guilt and shame? What’s the point?
I hear a ton of hopelessness and frustration in these questions. I hear them often. It’s fair–if we feel shitty, we want to know there’s a reason for it.
Research shows that Shame is positively correlated with addiction, aggression, bullying, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and violence. Shame makes us feel so bad that we have to take it out on ourselves or others because if we hold it in, it’s corrosive, it will literally break us apart from the inside out.
Guilt is the opposite. Guilt decreases the likelihood of those terrible things because, as my girl Brene says “the ability to hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredible adaptive…uncomfortable, but adaptive.”
Guilt is the emotion that prompts us to fix things now or do better next time. Shame prompts us to crawl into our shell and pray we will disappear. Guilt is helpful, Shame is not.
How does Shame stop?
How do I heal Shame?
Step 1: find a therapist (like yours truly) who knows a hell-of-a-lot about shame and doesn’t see Shame work as adjunct to therapy, unless that’s what you want
Step 2: notice what you feel shame about
Step 3: notice how young you feel when that shame moment is happening
Step 4: tell your therapist about it
by not keeping it a secret, you’re removing the IV fluids that keeps Shame alive
Step 5: start looking for moments in which the shame-story isn’t true
Shame-resilience is definitely more complicated than this mashup of 5 steps and that’s why you need a therapist by your side to help facilitate the healing. Sure, friends can listen and that is super super important! It’s also really important that you work on this with someone who is fully attentive to you and your story and can walk through the swamp with you, not just stand on the edge and cheer you on.