While it may seem that these words are synonyms, there is a difference between guilt and shame. A very important difference, actually. I just made myself some wild mountain blueberry coffee, so join me for a minute, hopefully with your favorite beverage, and a warm blanket and fuzzy pet if you’ve got ’em!
First let’s talk about guilt. Guilt says to us, “I did something wrong or hurtful to someone else.” Would it surprise you if I were to suggest that guilt is actually a good and necessary thing? Most folks do not like the feeling of guilt and would avoid it if at all possible. That’s good. Having guilt feel unpleasant motivates us to do things well, and not hurt others. We have a label for folks who feel zero guilt: sociopath. Sociopaths are characterized by no feelings of guilt no matter what pain they might cause to another person. Feelings of guilt actually come from our conscience, and our conscience lets us know when we have hurt someone and turns us from that behavior. There is nothing wrong with that, it socializes us.
What about shame then? How is shame different? Shame is actually not a good and necessary thing. Shame says to us, “You are bad, your existence is a waste and you shouldn’t even be alive.” Pretty fun self talk, huh? Unfortunately, it is all too common. It plays on our worst fear of being unlovable, which means to us, in the deepest parts of our hearts, that we will die alone. That is the worst thing that could happen to us because we are born hard-wired for connection.
Ultimately, though, shame is a lie, prideful, and a waste of time. Each person, no matter what they have done or not done, has inherent worth and value. When I describe this in my office, I talk about how much we love our kids when they are first born. Why do we love them? They are expensive, they keep us up all night, they perform various messy bodily functions on us, and yet we still love them so intensely. Why? Because they are. That is a good enough reason. Their existence is enough for us to love them, pretty unconditionally and ferociously, actually.
The lie that we believe when we have shame is that somehow in our lives we have been able to do or not do things that have had an effect on that truth about us. I did…a, b, c, d, ….so I am no longer worthy of being loved. Hogwash!!! You are still worthy of being loved no matter what! You may have consequences for your actions, and it may not be safe to be in relationship with you when you are under the influence of the pride that causes you to not be able to turn from your pain-inflicting behaviors; but your worth as a human being has never been in question.
If you have guilt for something, apologize and work to do better. Turn from the painful behavior. If you have shame, combat that by realizing the duality that you are imperfect, yes, but unlovable, no. You are both imperfect and lovable simultaneously. Then work to care for your own feelings and the feelings of others gently and kindly. It makes all the difference.
Thanks for stopping by!
Healing Hearts provides counseling services to the surrounding communities of Indianapolis, Fishers, Carmel, Zionsville, Westfield, Noblesville, and Geist. E-Counseling is available for residents of Indiana. Call or text today to set up your appointment. 317-218-3038
© 2016 Nancy Eisenman, MSW, LSW