How do you define the difference between shame and guilt? A lot of people I’ve been talking to tend to confuse the two, or aren’t really sure what the difference is, and actually, if it matters indeed.
In my therapeutic work with clients, I often find that one of the core issues people experience is the lack of self-acceptance which is often rooted in a lack of self-worth. As I explained a while back in my previous post, we often blame ourselves for what we’re feeling, which is an intrinsic part of who we are. And I am very sceptical as to how useful that is.
So what is shame, and what is guilt? I define guilt as that negative emotion we feel when we’ve done something that crosses our values, principles and core beliefs. So for example if one of your core value is honesty and you find yourself in a situation where you end up lying, you are likely to feel guilty about it.
Shame on another hand, is much more subtle and also vicious. Shame is often triggered by a similar event – one where you end up doing something that goes against your values. But instead of feeling you’ve done something wrong, if you end up thinking that as a result of that behaviour you are a bad person or unworthy, you’re then experiencing shame.
We learn shame quite early on in our lives, most often as children by being given negative messages about our worth when we do something wrong. Even if those messages are not spoken out loud, even if we don’t hear the actual words, we easily interpret our parents or teachers’ negative reactions towards us as a judgement on ourselves rather than on our actions.
I remember once as a child being in my best friend’s car, her mum was driving and we were being silly at the back. She suddenly broke and I flew over the passenger front seat. She got upset and yelled at me – I understand now she got scared for my safety – but I remember the intense shame feeling that overcame me. In hindsight, I know that I thought something along the line of “She’s screaming at me because I’m a bad person” instead of realising she was scared and unhappy with my behaviour. If you think about the wording adults use with children, it’s often giving away that message about identity actually ; criticisms are often expressed as “You are (stupid – annoying – ignorant etc)” which is syntactically of course the words we use to define identity (I am) – rather than implying it’s your behaviour or actions that are at play, not who you are as a person. The real message is most often “What you did/say is stupid/annoying/ignorant“. That’s not necessarily pleasant to hear, but at least at a deep unconscious level, we’re being criticised on what we do instead of who we are.
Shameful messages are very powerful in children, as it threatens their survival: Children are dependant on their carers, therefore very acute to anything that might put them in danger, physically or emotionally. If their parental figures stops loving them and care for them, they simply can’t survive. So it is natural for children to develop a fear of being unlovable, and any criticism that is expressed as a judgement on their identity will trigger that fear and later potentially turn into an associated core belief.
When clients come to see me I must say that I observe in most cases that the beliefs “I’m unlovable” or “I’m not worthy” are running. It’s not our parents fault – they didn’t have the tools or knowledge at the time to do any differently. But we have a responsibility towards children to monitor the messages we give them, but also towards each other. Most of us run those beliefs in the background, and we can begin to help and heal each other, simply by offering compassionate unconditional regard to the person in front of us. So we can begin to override those nasty messages with loving and healing ones such as “You are perfect as you are” or “You’re allowed and even welcome to make mistakes”.