The Difference Between Guilt and Shame

Shame and guilt are two very private, intimate feelings that are often not shared. Many are reluctant to open up for fear of judgment and stigma from others, and decide to keep these two emotions tucked away and out of sight, not realizing their impact on their reactions, behaviors, and relationships. 

Shame and guilt are very alike, but they are not the same, despite being intertwined. There is a core distinction between the two, as guilt is a response to our actions that perhaps caused hurt and pain, whereas shame is an emotion we feel due to others’ behavior towards us. 

The Role of Guilt

Guilt is a socially adaptive emotion that, when felt, can provoke apologies and changes in behavior. However, sometimes, guilt can occur for no reason at all, usually for those who have experienced complex trauma. 

Complex trauma is recognized as a result of prolonged abuse, neglect or abandonment during childhood or throughout a substantial period. 

A survivor of complex trauma will usually carry the unnecessary weight of another person’s actions and think that they should have done more or done things differently to avoid a traumatic event. Some people may also experience survivor guilt, in which they feel guilty for surviving an event where others did not. 

The Role of Shame

Shame is a deeply rooted emotion. When shame is met with ongoing judgment and isolation, it can intensify, and it can take years to unravel people’s minds and change the language they use to address themselves. 

Shame can create a distorted relationship within any individual. Typically, this is a negative result of the language that’s been absorbed through their surroundings, leaving them feeling as if they’re incapable of being who they wish to be. However, this is often far from the truth as no individual is ever lacking; they just don’t live up to someone else’s expectations. 

Shame can make people feel humiliated by their appearance, thoughts, or feelings and make them believe they are worthless. Studies suggest that being shamed from an early age can reveal traumatized characteristics that can often become apparent in adulthood. By being exposed to shame, many can struggle with difficulties such as: 

  • Addiction 
  • Depression 
  • Eating disorders 
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Suicidal ideation

To prevent this progression, shame must be overturned. To do this, identifying and exploring where it first originated will be most effective. This inner self-discovery will encourage the diminishing of shame and promote a positive future. Greeting shame with acceptance, empathy, and vulnerability is essential to invoke positive change within the individual concerned.

Self-Compassion, Anger, and Grief 

An effective technique to encourage self-compassion is to imagine the immense shame felt by a child. Through this exercise, people can witness how unfairly they treat themselves. Due to the natural instincts of wanting to help, protect and show empathy towards younger people, this exercise will benefit victims of shame by recognizing themselves within that child, allowing them to approach their future selves with love and compassion. 

For those who have felt shame since childhood, it’s common to feel disheartened, frustrated, and angry. Yet, all of these emotions aren’t necessarily negative as they can lead to gaining overall empowerment. By releasing disheartenment and anger in a healthy, controlled manner, it can become easier to understand what we need from future relationships. 

Shame can also mean an individual has missed out on unconditional love and acceptance. It is healthy to grieve this loss, as this can encourage making peace with the past. Although feelings cannot always be let go entirely, when space is created, a new recognition of strengths and pride can be injected. 

Leaving Shame Behind

Before detaching from shame, it’s essential to identify when and where it occurs first. An effective way to understand whether the feeling is guilt or shame is to think about the following questions: 

  • Do I feel bad? 
  • Am I making someone else feel bad? 

When we pinpoint whether we feel shame or guilt, progress can be made. If guilt is being experienced, we can take action to resolve this emotion. 

However, we must work more on the inner self to resolve this if it’s shame. And when encountering shame, it’s important to remember that one does not personally identify with the thoughts being had; they are only the observer!

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