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Guilt v Shame

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

"Even when we do wrong, accountability is helpful, compassion is helpful, apology and forgiveness are helpful, but shame is not."


My most vivid memory of the explanation of shame came in 2008 when my spiritual teacher told a room full of people that she would rather we blame her than carry shame. She continued that shame was by far the most destructive emotion and that its impact was extremely corrosive to the psyche.

That was so powerful that it has always stayed with me.

I believe that there is an epidemic of guilt and shame in our society. In fact the very reason I chose this topic is due to the large number of my clients who struggle with guilt and shame.

Talking about her own shame after experiencing abuse, psychologist and author, Debra Campbell observed, "We humans are good at gathering shame inside us, and often at shaming others. We can feel shame for things done to us, as much as for things we have done. We may automatically assume we must have deserved abuse, buy into the accusation that we ‘asked for it’, or hate ourselves for not responding more assertively. We may even try to normalise cruelty and swallow the shame rather than face the aftermath of hurts or trauma".

Shame is defined as the painful feeling that arises from the unconscious mind that something dishonourable, improper, ridiculous, etc. was done by oneself or another. It's a condition of humiliation, disgrace or disrepute over an action that leads to regret.

For me shame is that intensely painful belief that I am flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. The sense that something I’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes me unworthy of connection. Shame makes me want to hide, to be invisible because I feel so unloveable it shrinks my sense of self.

In Psychology Today, Diane Barth quoted one researcher saying that people described shame as feeling “wiped out, helpless, confused, sick in the gut, paralysed, or filled with rage. It was as if they were made small, stabbed in the heart, or hit in the solar plexus. Usually, they felt themselves flushing and wished they could disappear.

Many people confuse the meaning of guilt and shame and tend to use them interchangeably to mean the same thing.

Guilt is defined as the experience of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating a law and involving a penalty. The state of one who has committed an offence, especially one that is conscious. The feeling of deserving blame especially for imagined or real offences from a sense of inadequacy, and deserving self reproach.

As a foremost researcher on shame, Brene Brown distinguishes that shame is a focus on self while guilt is a focus on behaviour. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.”

The following are examples I've heard in my practice and from friends and family.

"I feel so guilty that I didn't spend enough time with my daughter".

"I feel guilty that I took time off work yesterday. Even though I didn't feel well, I couldn't relax because I felt so guilty".

"I feel so guilty when I do something nice for myself".

When we look at the definition of guilt and assess the examples above, it's clear to me that what most of these women are expressing is not actually guilt but shame. In reality they have not committed a crime or done anything that would be considered by others as 'bad'.

In most cases it's not their action that is 'bad' but instead they have a deeply held unconscious belief that they are 'bad'. So bad that they do not deserve to take time off when they are sick. Other people do but not them.

People with severe shame set unrealistic standards for themselves and set a tough yardstick to live by. They are hugely self-critical and have negative and abusive self-talk.

Where does shame come from?

Shame is at the root of most addiction and violence, both are ways the victim attempts to medicate the feelings of shame.

Most men involved in domestic violence use anger to mask deeply buried shame usually from a traumatic childhood of extreme physical and sexual abuse. When a person is abused, instead of blaming the abuser, they tend to internalise the experience and make it about their worth. They will then use violence and substances to cover up or bury the corrosive and debilitating affect of the shame.

"We humans tend to feel ashamed when we are the victim. Too often we feel shame when viciousness is enacted against us. Instead of turning a mirror of accountability on the behaviour of the abuser, many of us automatically internalise the experience and feel deep shame that we must have caused them to hurt us through some action or character flaw of our own".

In short all shame comes from some kind of traumatic experience usually in childhood. Read last week's newsletter for more about trauma.

How to manage guilt and shame

In order to thrive shame needs silence, secrecy and judgement. First and foremost we begin the healing process by shining a light on the feelings of guilt and shame.

  • Find someone you can trust and share your reality with them. Just saying it out loud usually dissipates the level of guilt and shame. This is referred to as shame or guilt reduction. There's a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous that you are only as sick as your secrets.

  • Accept that your feelings are real and then ask yourself, "is it true?" In other words are your feelings based on facts. If a friend shared the same thing with you, would you consider them worthy of guilt or shame?

  • If something you did or said calls for corrective behaviour, then make amends and do so sooner rather than later and move on.

  • Forgive yourself for being human and get support to wean yourself off perfectionism.

  • Usually the harsh, abusive voice you hear in your head is that of your perpetrator, a parent or significant person in your life. Ask yourself whose voice is it? Then do all you can to evict that person from your head. Remind yourself that they can only have power over you if you allow it. In short, do not allow the perpetrator to live rent-free in your head.

  • Be kind to yourself, afford yourself the same standard of tolerance and acceptance that you would give your friends.

  • Give yourself a break and breath a little.

Diane Barth concludes that shame and guilt, while sometimes connected, are very different emotions. In the best of circumstances, guilt, or an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, can lead to positive change in a person’s behaviour. Shame on the other hand is not helpful or productive. Shame is a way of closing a person down.

Tignor & Colvin, 2017 concludes that "although guilt and shame are seen as negative affective states they are self-conscious emotions, meaning that self-reflection is critical to their occurrence”.

This means that because of this reflective element of guilt and shame, it potentially offers an opportunity for us to gain awareness which can lead to growth and transformation.

If you have any questions about guilt and shame or want to explore how they play out in your life, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

Kathryn Toohey from GlobalWoman interviews me on Self-care

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