It took a long time for me to start grasping the difference between shame and guilt. A really long time.
About five years, give or take.
At the beginning of my journey, I couldn’t see the difference between guilt or shame. To me, they were the same; obviously they were! I did something bad and I feel badly about it.
Then, one day while rolling around in a suffocating puddle of self hatred, my sponsor introduced me to a new series of definitions and understandings about shame and guilt. I learned that there IS a difference between the two. I learned the difference is HUGE.
While guilt is merely an emotion telling me I’ve done something wrong, shame is a self-judgement, a thought, an idea about myself that tells me I’m wrong to the core, I’m a bad guy, incapable and unworthy of redemption — not just because of what I have or haven’t done — but because I suck at a fundamental, gut-conscious level.
Shame is a decision, guilt is an emotion.
But there is more to untangling from destructive shame than just knowing ONE difference… It is usually helpful if I understand ALL seven fundamental differences between feeling bad about something I’ve done (guilt) and feeling I’m a bad person because I did it at all (shame).
SEVEN DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SHAME AND GUILT
- Shame means “I am wrong.” Guilt means “I did something wrong.” Shame hurts our self-image and our belief that we can change things we don’t like about ourselves or our situation. Guilt is about feeling badly about a mistake.
- Shame does not lead to positive change; guilt does. When we experience shame, we often will try to ignore or avoid whatever caused the sense of shame. For example, when we feel shame about being overweight, we will avoid the gym or physical activity to avoid the feeling of shame. Guilt is feeling badly about something and can inspire us to act differently in the future.
- Shame always leads to disconnection from others. Guilt can lead to healing. Confessing our errors allows us to be vulnerable with others, so guilty feelings can prompt us to build a connection through communication or changed behavior. Shame prevents us from feeling strong enough to confess our mistakes, making us defensive when others point them out.
- Shame is internalized and deeply connected to our sense of who we are. Guilt is often passing. Shame-based comments appear to be accurate statements about our character or lack thereof. Those comments are easily internalized as truth about who we are, haunting us long after the comment was made. Guilt, on the other hand, fades with time or after corrective action is taken.
- Shame is never healthy or useful. Guilt can be healthy and useful. Often people will make shaming comments with the best of intentions, hoping the comment will inspire someone to change something. As mentioned above, shame has the opposite effect. Guilt, however, is a useful response that helps interpersonal relationships exist. Be careful how you convey negative feedback – it will work better to simply state the harm caused than to shame the other person.
- Shame is about causing pain for an individual. Guilt is usually associated with accountability. Shame is about making someone feel unworthy, different, or less than the speaker. Shameful comments are meant to hurt. Comments that create guilty feelings are about communicating pain or disappointment, without casting negativity on the person as a whole.
- Shame underlies a host of psycho-social problems: depression, substance abuse, infidelity, etc. Guilt does not. Since shame is based on negative assessments of a person’s entire being, feeling shame can contribute to larger mental health problems. If shame makes us feel worthless, we are more likely to develop depression. Avoiding overwhelming shame is easier if we drink to excess or abuse drugs. Shame is a trap.
How did this happen?
How did I get so screwed up?
I’m not sure… but there are a few ideas about this. Some professionals believe that at some early point in my life, I seemed to have absorbed a false belief that resulted in a constant feeling of shame. Perhaps this came as a result of not feeling seen, loved, valued and understood, maybe because I was gay, maybe because I was an alcoholic-in-waiting… I don’t know exactly why it happened. You may not either.
It doesn’t matter.
What DOES matter is this: I (and maybe you too) are the reluctant owners of a shitty theory, a totally f’ed-up belief that sounds something like this:
I wasn’t loved before
I am incapable of being loved now
I will probably never know love in the future
There is something fundamentally wrong with me.
I may not know exactly how this theory got settled in my mind, but for about half the people wrestling with shame it happened like this: when they were children they were told over and over and over again that they were not okay; that they were stupid, bad or undeserving . The other half of the population (I believe I’m in this category)… sorta “figured it out.”
In what has to be the weirdest twist on self-analysis, some time in our early childhood, we seemingly decided there was something wrong with us based on the way others reacted to us.
Worse, once I established that core shame belief, I became addicted to it.
WHY? Why, why, why?? Why do we do this?
How Shame Serves Us
1. Shame give us a feeling of control over other people’s feelings and behavior.
As long as we believe that we are the cause of others rejecting behavior, then we can believe that there is something we can do about it. It gives us a sense of power to believe that others are rejecting us, or behaving in unloving ways, because of our inadequacy.
If it is our fault then maybe we can do something about it by changing ourselves, by doing things “right.”
We hang on to the belief that our inadequacy is causing others behavior because we don’t want to accept others free will to feel and behave however they want. We don’t want to accept our helplessness over others feelings and behavior.
2. It protected us from other feelings we were afraid to feel, giving us a sense of control over our own life.
As bad as shame feels, many people prefer it to the feelings that shame may be covering up: loneliness, heartbreak, grief, sadness, sorrow or helplessness over others. Just as anger may be a cover-up for these difficult feelings, so is shame. Shame is totally different than loneliness or heartbreak or helplessness over others.
Shame is CAUSED by our false belief ABOUT LIFE.
Loneliness, heartbreak, grief, sadness, sorrow, helplessness over others … These are all existential feelings — feelings that are a NATURAL REUSLT OF LIFE
We feel heartbreak and grief over losing someone we love. We feel loneliness when we want to connect with someone or play with someone, and there is no one around or no one open to connection, love or play. Many people would rather feel an awful feeling that they are causing, than feel the authentic painful feelings of life.
If you are finding it difficult to move beyond shame, it may be because you are addicted to the feeling of control that your shame-based beliefs give you: Control over others’ feelings and behavior, and control over your own authentic feelings. As long as having the control is most important to you, you will not let go of your false core shame beliefs.
1. You are willing to accept that others feelings and behavior have nothing to do with you.
When you accept that others have free will to be open or closed, loving or unloving — that you are not the cause of their feelings and behavior, and you no longer take others behavior personally – you will have no need to control it. When you let go of your need to control others, and instead move into compassion for yourself and others, you will let go of your false beliefs about yourself that cause the feeling of shame.
2. You are willing to feel your authentic feelings, rather than cover them up with anger or shame.
When you learn to nurture yourself by being present with caring and compassion for your own existential feelings, you will no longer have a need to protect against these feelings with blame or shame.
Control and shame seem to be intricately tied together. When you give up your attachment to control, and instead choose compassion toward yourself and others, shame disappears.