Guilt versus Shame – Is There A Difference And How Much is Too Much?

In order to live your best life, it is necessary to identify the difference between shame and guilt as well as the difference between appropriate and inappropriate guilt. But identifying them isn’t enough: my goal for you is that you will free yourself from both guilt and shame. But let me begin by defining terms . . . .
Guilt is a feeling that occurs when a person behaves outside of the boundaries she has accepted as guidelines of appropriate behavior. Someone can feel guilt about a behavior without feeling bad about herself as a person. Guilt is an appropriate response, for example, when we believe in being honest, but have lied about something to our spouse or to a close friend. Guilt provides a clue that a person has made a mistake, but does not imply that the person who chose poorly is a mistake. Shame, on the other hand, is a sense of being wrong as a person. Childhood sexual abuse often produces a profound sense of shame. A person who feels shame is typically very careful to always act within the constraints of behavioral appropriateness, usually according to definitions imposed upon her by others, yet still believes she is wrong.
A very simple example that illustrates the difference between shame and guilt often occurs when we break a diet. Without experiencing shame, an extra snack is simply an extra snack and permitted occasionally. A guilty response would be observed when a person says: “I shouldn’t have done that.” But, when shame is part of your system of how you treat yourself, that extra snack mistakenly comes to represent everything that is “wrong” with you. So, after you eat a fresh, soft, homemade cookie your co-worker brought to the office, you berate yourself. It sounds something like this: “I can’t believe I ate that. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I do anything right? I’m such a loser!” Then, you feel so badly about yourself that you eat three or four more cookies to try to soothe yourself out of the shame. But, does eating more cookies reduce shame and self-doubt? Not usually. The cookies may temporarily reduce the negative feelings associated with shame, since eating can sometimes create a temporary numbing of feelings. But the cookies actually serve to make feelings of shame worse because most of the time going on a “cookie binge” causes more difficulty with thinking and feeling good things about yourself after the cookies are gone.
Once you have learned to shame yourself, it is easy to apply it to yourself in any situation where you make a mistake. It is a hard habit to break because it was likely reinforced for you over and over during your childhood experience. If simple mistakes were unacceptable during childhood, you will have to work very hard to make them permissible as an adult. With entrenched patterns from childhood, shame transforms a simple mistake made by a normal human being into a serious tragedy performed by an individual with deep flaws of character. The shame is then easily reinforced by an abusive partner as well as the voices in your own head. The practice of shaming yourself can also lead to the belief that random unfortunate events that sometimes occur in life present some kind of punishment toward you. Shame encourages you to believe that discouragements come to you as part of your “lot in life.” Fortunately, it is possible to overcome the practice of shaming yourself. It requires your focused energy toward changing your patterns of thinking. Plainly said, shame is a serious error of belief that can be unlearned, freeing you to lead a happy life with renewed feelings of confidence in yourself.
Let us look deeper into how shame becomes a habit. I believe that the seeds of allowing others to define the self are planted in the autonomy versus shame and doubt stage of development – when a child is about two years old. If a woman allows others to define her rather than defining and valuing herself, perhaps her first lessons in this behavior occurred when she was a toddler and chastised for  or “protected” from exploring the world in typical toddler fashion. Perhaps, the woman who experiences self-doubt when she is confronted with the choice as to how she will assert herself in the face of conflict was discouraged from claiming herself early in life: she was punished for saying “No,” for example. When I speak of conflict here, I am speaking of those moments in time when a woman is confronted with the choice of taking care of her own needs versus caring for the needs of others or the choice of caring for her own needs rather than submitting to the demands of someone else. It is permissible and desirable for a woman to choose to care for someone else and place her own needs secondary from time to time. However, the optimal word here is choice. Problems occur when a woman feels compelled to help or when she feels incapable of saying “No,” even though her better judgment indicates a different choice. In addition, self-doubt, shame or inappropriate guilt are often responsible for the negation of a woman’s own needs in service of the needs of others. When a woman allows this doubt to overpower the innate drive to care for herself, the woman suffers. When a woman suffers in her ability to care for herself, those whom she cares for suffer as well.
I opened this post with a question about shame and guilt. I asked how much is too much. My answer is that any amount of shame or guilt is too much. Shame is caused by mistaken beliefs about yourself. Most guilt is inappropriate. Appropriate guilt can usually be rectified with a course correction.
© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2014 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.

In cooperation with 2bsisters, Tamara is in the process of making her recovery curriculum for domestic violence survivors available via a protected online format. This curriculum is for victims who have not yet been able to escape, those who have recently escaped and those who have been independent for a time but still need to strengthen themselves as survivors.


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