5 In Blog

Shame Vs. Guilt


“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” – Brene Brown

In her excellent and thought-provoking book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown talks about the difference between shame and guilt. For the first time, it really struck me just how different the two emotions were.

So very, very different.

Both emotions are painful to feel. They tell us that we’re not living our potential, that we’ve done something sub-standard, something that would hurt if it was done to us. Neither emotions are pleasant but one leads to change, while the other leads to destruction.

Guilt = I did something bad.

Guilt is a healthy reaction when we act outside our values and standards.

Shame = I am bad.

Shame is something we are taught, that we carry around like a lead weight. It’s shame that leads to self-defeating and harmful behaviours. Once we believe we are bad, shame erodes our desire to change. We stop thinking we’re loveable or worthy of love. After all, if we are bad to our core, what’s the point in trying to change?

Here is the difference:

“My behaviour was wrong” vs. “I am wrong”.
“I made a mistake” vs. “I am stupid”.
“If I had/hadn’t done that, then this wouldn’t have happened to me” vs. “I deserved this to happen to me”.

Guilt, although incredibly uncomfortable, can be a helpful feeling. Unlike shame, it is a motivator to change, to behave in a way that is more aligned with our values in the future. When we feel guilty, we focus on the action that was the genesis of the guilt, rather than honing in on the whole of ourselves. Guilt is about something we’ve done, rather than something we are.

Recently, I was part of a group discussion about the kinds of things you take to counselling supervision. Someone immediately said: “You take what you don’t want to take.”

You take what you feel you can’t talk about, what you feel is unacceptable, what feels shameful. And you take what you don’t want to take for the same reason Brene talks about in her book:

The more you talk about the shameful things, the less they become shameful.

When we talk about shameful things, they lose their power.

You have to talk to the right people about them – people who won’t judge, who won’t give you advice, who won’t out-drama you. People who’ll just listen, hear, and accept. People who will understand how hard it is to talk about those things, and that the act of talking about them is an act of courage.

When we don’t talk about the shame, it becomes a prison, holding us back from being our authentic selves with others. When we talk about shameful things, we show ourselves we are courageous, not bad.

When we talk to the right people, we beging to learn that we are understandable and acceptable, with all our flaws and imperfections. We learn that we aren’t unworthy, undeserving, unloveable, un-anything.

We’re human.

What are you not wanting to talk about?

Photo Credit: KnockOut_Photographs via Compfight cc

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  • Andrew
    April 4, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    I find this topic interesting, but in part it breaks down to me when a persons shame is the healthy result of their being wrong….

    • Hannah Braime
      April 4, 2013 at 11:17 pm

      Hello Andrew,

      Thanks for your comment. I think guilt would be a healthy result of someone doing or saying something wrong, however shame is never a ‘healthy’ emotion, simply because it’s so destructive to our sense of self-worth. If we feel shame, we believe we are bad, instead of believing that we did something bad. If we believe we are bad, then we’re unlikely to feel able to change that behaviour in the future, whereas we believe the latter, then we’re far more likely to try to make amends. Does that make sense?

  • Becky Nolan
    May 14, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Hi Hannah, thanks for this post. I have been researching quite a few sites on the distinction between guilt and shame. The first one I read was a christian site which doesn’t see shame as a bad thing due to religious beliefs stating: “In other words, when we tell people they shouldn’t feel bad about who they are, we limit the glory of the gospel. The truth is, Jesus didn’t come to save good people who do bad things. He came to save bad people who wanted nothing to do with God.” Leaving my opinion on the perspective aside I will say I found it interesting.
    As a parent I definitely speak in terms of separating my children’s misbehaviors with their identity, also teaching them to steer clear of labels put on ourselves as well as others. Shame hits harder and deeper in our cores. I felt compelled to mention from the perspective of a life coach, I see successes with eradicating the low self-worth associated with shame. The longer people continue to act shamefully the more they validate their shame and unworthiness of love and belonging and the harder they may have to search to find their actions that disprove this negative internal dialogue. I appreciate the opportunity to add that feeling shame is hardly a dead end. And the way out of feeling shame may be less challenging than some think. I especially admire your comment regarding the act of talking about one’s shame, “talking about them is an act of courage.”

  • Jack Sterling
    August 12, 2013 at 5:54 am

    I loved this post! I really liked the distinction made and the part about taking what you don’t want to take.

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