01 Jan Shame vs. Guilt: and the Winner Is…!
As we kick off the New Year, I want to talk some about one of the most fundamentally important topics that comes up in therapy or at least in therapy with me. The topic is shame versus guilt. Though sometimes used interchangeably, these are significantly different words. Guilt is a focus on behavior but shame is a focus on the person. As Brene Brown mentions, guilt says “I made a mistake” where shame says “I am a mistake”.
Everyone who is not a sociopath feels some measure of both of these emotions. We are supposed to care when we hurt others or do something that puts ourselves in a bad light. What I want you to understand and what I say to people in the therapy room is this; guilt is functional but shame is not. That is, when we feel guilty we often are able to make positive changes and amends. Shame, on the other hand, often leads not to healing and reconciliation but to isolation and pathology. Research backs me up on this. Shame is strongly positively correlated with things like bullying, addiction, suicide, violence, depression, eating disorders and more. Conversely, guilt is strongly negatively correlated with the same stuff!
The hard part is what to do for the person who swims in the sea of shame. In therapy, I address fundamental issues with them, encourage them, cry with them, love them, and most anything else I can come up with to do. Thank goodness, sometimes these things seem to help. I’m telling you though, the help almost never comes until the person realizes the powerful role shame is playing in their life and decides they are no longer going to be controlled by feeling like a horrible and unredeemable person. Then, and only then, are they able to confess what they need to confess, make the amends they need to make, and with loving vulnerability take on the issues that have controlled them for so long.
So, here in the New Year, allow me to challenge you to consider the degree to which shame operates in your life. If you see it there and recognize the effects, please consider taking some steps to let go of it some. Then you might be able to move into a more functional view of who you are and what you need to do to repair that which has been broken.