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.”1 Let’s explore these concepts more in depth …
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 live up to our value system, and taking steps to rectify that and make different choices in the future” states Christine Menna, LMSW and associate therapist at Gateway to Solutions. It gives us a sense of agency, reminding us that we have control over the words we use and the choices and actions we make. Thus, guilt is typically 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 obligations as members of the human race.
Shame, by contrast, shuts us down. We take on an experience as an assessment of ourselves. This punitive inward response does not allow space for a reparative process. It instead persuades us to avoid, a maladaptive response since connection is an essential part of being human. Shame sends a message that we are not worthy of this connection. Because we believe that we don’t belong, we retreat from relating with others. It also destroys the idea that we can evolve and improve. Shame is associated with addiction, violence, eating disorders, aggression, depression and bullying.1 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.
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 can fight 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
- Practice critical awareness: question the messages shame is sending and consider if they are realistic.
- Reach out: connect with others and share your story.
- 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.
Shame and guilt … they are not as similar as they may appear! The next time you see 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. You may also want to consult a trusted professional who can help you work through these challenges.