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Shame vs. Guilt

A few weeks back, a question was raised after the sermon as to the difference between shame and guilt. In the mental health profession, there has been a lot of attention given to this question, so I thought I would offer some thoughts.

There’s an oft repeated phrase in the helping profession that captures the difference between guilt and shame quite nicely. Guilt is about what I’ve done. Shame is about who I am.

Guilt is an emotion. Guilt calls us to self-reflection. Is what I did wrong? Did I hurt someone else with my action? Could I have done this differently? What does this action reflect about my inner world and values? When handled well, guilt can drive us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, others and relationships. It can inspire us to take actions that lead to vulnerability, accountability, and humility – all wonderful gifts for us humans!

Shame, on the other hand, is an identity statement. Shame calls us into hiding. It doesn’t ask questions – it makes statements. I am horrible. I am stupid. I’m so awkward. I’m such a waste. I’m a failure. To believe these shame-statements is unbearable to the human psyche*. When the load becomes too heavy, something must be done to relieve the pressure. There are three options – attack, retreat, or shatter.

Imagine you’ve been working on a project for the last several months. Maybe a painting, a song you’re learning, an idea for work, a community event, something you’ve written. It could be anything. You share it with someone – a friend, your spouse, your boss, a co-worker. Their response isn’t what you hoped for. Maybe they don’t give you the affirmation you were looking for, maybe they jump right to ‘constructive criticism’, maybe they nod their head and then keep on talking, maybe they say something to dismiss or minimize your effort or work. Whatever it is, the blood drains from your face, your stomach twists, and maybe tears sting at the back of your eyes. Maybe your head gets a bit dizzy, your cheeks flush, and you feel a surge of indignation and hurt. Here is the critical moment; you exposed your heart and it was skipped right over or criticized. Where do your thoughts go?

Do they attack you?

“This must be a really dumb idea, I am such an idiot for thinking someone would like this.”

“I’ll never be good at this.”

“This is so embarrassing, I can’t believe I was dumb enough to show someone.”

Do they attack the other person?

“I can’t believe they were so insensitive!”

“They obviously don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“That was so rude, they should know better!”

Do they run and hide?

“I’m never going to share this stuff again.”

“Forget it, I give up. I’m not working on this anymore.”

“Whatever, it’s no big deal. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m just going to move on and forget about this.”

Shattering takes a bit more of a conversation to explore, but a basic answer is that it causes fragmenting of the psyche* to develop different parts, faces, or personas (whichever word you fancy) in order to capture the overwhelming emotion and prevent more shame-moments in the future. Your inner self basically reacts with “This was entirely too much, I can’t handle any more experiences like this!” and develops a defensive posture. Perhaps there becomes and adult part that can produce enormous amounts of competency and driveness and make sure to never look foolish again. There may be a child part that either hides away our vulnerability, or can be used to induce pity to prevent people from hurting us. The fun part that refuses to feel angry. The bitter part that refuses to forgive. The victim part that cannot accept accountability. The servant part that loses all trace of individual thoughts and desires. And on and on it goes. What you end up with are stereotypic behavior patterns and an inability to access the fullness of the self God created us to be. (I may have just raised more questions than I answered with that last bit, but there you have it. Maybe we can explore that more another time, if anyone is interested.)

*The psyche is simply the word used to describe all the indescribable bits that make up you – a combination of mind, spirit, and personality

2 Comments

  1. What do you mean when you say, “The victim part that cannot accept accountability”? What does a victim need to be held accountable for?

    “There may be a child part that either hides away our vulnerability, or can be used to induce pity”. Why the induced pity? What do you mean by that?

    Reply
  2. Thank you for these thoughts, Amanda! I think this is a really helpful distinction.

    Reply

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