Shame and guilt: how to know the difference

shame and guilt
Photo by J Taubitz on Unsplash

Since Brene Brown gave her famous talk, the pop culture difference between shame and guilt has become that the latter makes you feel bad for what you did. The former makes you feel bad for who you are.

As a result, it’s believed guilt can help us by pointing out what we need to do differently. Shame, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities and offers no self-improvement benefits.

As a survivor of complex PTSD, I can attest to the way shame immobilizes you. It attacks you in waves and makes you feel “flooded” with feelings of self-loathing. These so-called emotional flashbacks can strike at any time and make it difficult to enjoy life.

Since undergoing neurofeedback treatment, I’ve experienced a lessening of these attacks. The shame of PTSD has been replaced by ordinary memories that no longer make me hate myself.

I now know firsthand how it feels to be free from both shame and guilt. My newfound memories allow me to experience past mistakes without pummeling me with self-criticism and self-loathing that allows no hope for change.

For this reason, I disagree about the helpfulness of guilt feelings though I do agree that shame and guilt differ in key ways. As Robert Augustus Masters writes in Emotional Intimacy: “Feeling guilty about something enables us to do it again.”

How shame and guilt manifest

shame and guilt

Guilt has to do with action, knowing what we’re doing is wrong but doing it anyway. Guilt can inspire rationalization that allows for repeat offences. For example, an abuser feels guilty about his offence but that rarely stops him from recommitting.

In fact, another pop culture psychology figure Dr. Phil stated boldly that “the best predictor of past behavior is future behavior.” So, in contrast to Dr. Brown’s claim, guilt makes us more likely to repeat than to curb bad behavior.

Guilt makes the addict say, “I’ll never drink or use again.” (She will). It also makes the weight watcher declare she’ll start her diet tomorrow – after this decadent dessert. All guilt does is stop us from enjoying the thing we’re going to do anyway.

Guilt makes us an enemy of ourselves by witnessing as we self-sabotage. It’s more active than shame which seems to come out of nowhere, burying us in immobilizing self-hatred.

It’s true that guilt focuses on what we’ve done wrong while shame exposes our perceived inherent “wrongness”. But contrary to popular current belief, neither guilt nor shame offer any self-improvement value.

Both shame and guilt ensure nothing changes and we stay mired in our patterns of self-sabotage. Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are the keys to releasing old habits and transforming into the person you’re meant to be in the world.

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