The Difference between Guilt and Shame, and Why it Matters
Most people talk about guilt and shame as a similar experience, but it can be helpful to understand them as two distinct feelings.
Guilt is a feeling we experience when we believe we have done something wrong, something that has hurt someone or something. Guilt can be healthy--it can signify that we have taken responsibility for our actions and can prompt us to try to make amends for any harm that we've caused. Guilt can also be unhealthy, particularly when we have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and experience an irrational belief that we have hurt someone or something when in reality, we haven't done anything to make amends for. We can become trapped in guilt, and become harsh with ourselves, largely due to unrealistic and harsh expectations of ourselves.
Shame is a feeling we experience when we believe we ARE bad, wrong, unlovable, ugly, worthless etc.
Shame is not about a feeling in response to something we've done, an act; rather, shame is a feeling about our core selves.
Perhaps we have made a mistake. Maybe we've spilled a drink on a family member's rug. Rather than apologizing and helping to clean up, shame might lead us to hide the spill, to hide our selves, because shame tells us that we are bad and can make us feel afraid of being rejected by others. After all, why would anyone want to be around someone who our shame tells us is so bad, worthless or unlovable???
Often though, we haven't done anything wrong at all!
We often experience shame as very young children, and we may develop distorted negative beliefs about ourselves in response to harsh parenting, or it may be easier for a young child to believe that there is something "wrong" with them, or that they are inherently unlovable, rather than to see their parents as not being able to love/take care of them. This is especially true when caregivers are emotionally unavailable or abusive.
The most important thing to understand is that unhealthy guilt and shame erode self-compassion. We can become harsh with ourselves, tight in our bodies, which doesn't help us heal. The thing about shame is that no one deserves it. If you doubt that, find a picture of yourself as a toddler. How could there possibly be anything bad, worthless or unlovable about that little person? The truth is, there isn't, and there never was! Creating Space Counseling and Wellness can help you get to know your inner guilt and shame, to separate them from your self, and to strengthen your best self with compassion and care.