The Difference Between Shame and Guilt

“Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.” –Brené Brown

Shame is a topic most people avoid.  It is uncomfortable and dark.  The truth is, we all have shame.  It is a universal emotion and research has shown that the only people who don’t feel shame are those that are pathologically unable to feel empathy.  So, if you can empathize you have shame.  While most people use the terms shame and guilt interchangeably, Brené Brown has helped me to understand that there is a significant difference between them.  This understanding has changed the way I look at situations and has made me aware my own self-talk.

Brené makes the distinction between the two in this way; shame is a label of who we are and guilt is a behavior or something that was done.  Shame is a fundamental belief that there is something wrong with us.  It is the feeling of being flawed or unworthy.  Guilt is the recognition of a behavior that is not in alignment with who I say I want to be.  When I make a mistake at work, if my self-talk is about how stupid I am or what an idiot I am, that is shame.  If my self-talk is about what a stupid mistake I made, that is guilt.  It sounds like a slight difference, ‘I am stupid,’ versus ‘I did something stupid,’ but the distinction is critical.  When we are in shame, there is something wrong with us and we have no power to change who we are.  When we did something wrong, it is the behavior that is not working.  We can change a behavior.  We can’t change who we are.  The distinction between these two is absolutely critical.

As you begin to listen to your own self-talk, take note of any shaming statements and see if you are able to shift them to focus on the behavior or situation instead.  This is a challenge, but it is important to discern which thoughts are empowering us to change and which are keeping us stuck.   For example, when I look in the mirror and tell myself that I’m fat and focus on scale numbers that keep going up, I’m in shame.  When I notice myself talking like this, I can choose to instead remind myself that I have been eating fast food and have not been exercising regularly, which have caused the scale numbers to go up.  I now have the power to make a behavior change.  I may feel guilt about the number on the scale, but recognizing that there is a behavior I can change gives me the power to do something about it.  Guilt can be a powerful motivator for change, but shame eats away at our core sense of value.

Shame is a deep topic and Brené Brown has written extensively on it.  I will share more about her research and her understanding of how shame works in the next few weeks.

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