What’s the Difference between Guilt and Shame?
I see many clients who have carried longstanding feelings of shame which end up fostering low self esteem and confidence. I believe guilt can be a healthy guide but shame rarely produces a positive outcome. So, what’s the difference? In a nutshell, guilt is the feeling that “I have done a bad thing” and shame is the feeling of “I am bad person”. Very few of us are “bad” people but everyone has done some things we don’t feel good about. Guilt can promote change and growth, but shame usually keeps us stuck in an unhealthy pattern. For example, if I treat a friend poorly and feel guilty about it, guilt usually propels me to apologize and change my future behavior. If I treat a friend poorly and feel shame (I’m a bad person and a bad friend), it’s more unlikely I’ll change my behaviors. Why? Because if I carry the belief that I’m a bad person, it’s difficult to advocate for my improvement and sometimes difficult to take responsibility. On the contrary, if I believe my core is good and that I’m basically a good person, then I will consequently be inclined to improve myself and my actions. If I think I’m a good and decent person, I’ll like myself. If I carry a sense of shame, I’ll dislike who I am and view myself as inherently flawed. It’s extremely difficult to want to improve, care for and develop something regarded as deeply flawed and this is the belief that shame promotes. With shame in control, a person either takes responsibility to an unhealthy degree (i.e. “I’m bad, bad, bad) or they resist taking responsibility in front of others because they don’t want to be seen as the bad person they think they are. On the contrary, when a person feels good about their core and is propelled by guilt, they have an easier time accepting responsibility, changing their behaviors, and moving forward.
How does Shame come About?
Shame always arises out of relationship. If you were the only person on this planet, I can guarantee you that you would carry no shame! People who carry a sense of shame were often criticized, driven or neglected by their parents to some degree or had an emotionally or physically abusive relationship with a significant other. Many people don’t realize how their earlier experiences have helped shape their sense of self because their past is all they know and there is nothing else to compare it to. And, there is often a lack of awareness how shame impedes in so many areas of life. If shame is present then the belief that one deserves success, love and happiness is diminished. If I feel I’m a bad person, I don’t deserve good things.
Take a Shame Inventory
I encourage you to consider how guilt and shame operate in your life. Do you easily become defensive when people give you feedback and correction? Is it hard for you to admit you “made a mistake”. Do you find yourself in repetitive unhealthy relationships? Do you have trouble motivating yourself to improve yourself and life? Do you have low self esteem and have trouble accepting compliments and feeling you deserve good things in life? These can all be signs you carry a sense of shame around. If you catch yourself dwelling in the land of shame, try and correct it. Tell yourself you’re allowed to be human like everyone else and do some less than perfect things, but you are not a bad person. Remind yourself of the difference between “doing a bad thing” and “being a bad person”. Make a habit of catching your moments of shame and redefining your behavior and self. Take responsibility for your actions but also take responsibility for yourself by not burying yourself in the quagmire of shame. You deserve it.
Sylvia Flanagan, MFT is a San Diego therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley. For more information about San Diego Therapy, feel free to call or email her.
Office hours are Monday through Thursday 9:00 to 6:00.