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Shame and Guilt: The difference means more than you think!

Do you know the difference between shame and guilt? If your answer is “no”, then you are like the majority of individuals who have been asked this question. The terms are often used interchangeably but they are surprisingly very different. Knowing the difference between guilt and shame can actually help you identify thoughts and cognitions that are wearing you down.

Initially, Guilt seems like it is bad feeling to have (or it at least feels bad). However, research has shown that guilt is actually adaptive. It allows us to take responsibility or ownership of a mistake and build on it to something better. To know guilt is to know that something needs to change in your life. I like this quote I once heard from a TED talk (see full talk below):

“Guilt is inversely correlated with those feelings. The ability to hold something we’ve done, or failed to do, up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.”

Owning our guilt and doing something about is what will make us better human beings. If we did not feel guilt, we would not be able to empathize with others. We would not be able to own up to REAL mistakes.

Now we know what guilt is, but how is it different from SHAME?

Guilt comes from focusing on a behavior that you may or may not be doing (i.e. you feel bad for yelling at your child). Shame, however, is centralized on yourself (i.e. you are a bad person for yelling at your child). Guilt and Shame are both normal human responses, but an overabundance of feeling shame can result in anxiety, depression, aggression, eating disorders, self-harm and many other unwanted issues.

Here is an example to help you understand better:

Guilt Response:

I feel bad for spreading a rumor about my coworker

Shame Response:

I am a bad person for spreading a rumor about my coworker

Did you notice the difference? Guilt is feeling bad about doing something, and shame is the belief that YOU are ‘the bad’. Shame is a normal human response, but it has the potential to hurt you both emotionally and physically. I personally call it 'shame-brain'

In some extreme cases, shame has been linked to lashing out against self-and/or others, and has been correlated to bullying, abuse, and other aggressive behaviors. Research has shown that shame-prone individuals have the tendency to have self-directed anger and displaced aggression (lashing out against someone who is not the reason for your pain).

How do you fight against shame? Be OPEN. Be VULNERABLE. TELL SOMEONE about how you are feeling. You can learn how to separate YOU from the BEHAVIOR (shame trigger), so that YOU yourself is NOT what is bad. Seek professional help, even if you do not feel like it is serious. A counselor (or other mental health professional) can help you to challenge your negative thoughts and cognitive distortions, as well as teach you coping mechanisms to help you in the future. Let's kick shame-brain in the pants and go on to live as our authentic selves!

Is your shame-brain hurting you? If so, I can help. Call me (509)289-2722



Resources: (where I found the TED video)

Shamed into anger? The relation of shame and guilt to anger and self-reported aggression. Tangney, June P.; Wagner, Patricia; Fletcher, Carey; Gramzow, Richard Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 62(4), Apr 1992, 669-675.

Relation of shame and guilt to constructive versus destructive responses to anger across the lifespan.

Tangney, June Price; Wagner, Patricia E.; Hill-Barlow, Deborah; Marschall, Donna E.; Gramzow, Richard

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 70(4), Apr 1996, 797-809.

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