You Did What?! How Could You!

Would you be surprised to learn that guilt and shame are not the same? They are, indeed, different. And, the importance of understanding that difference enables us to appropriately address and deal with “guilty” thoughts and feelings and to reject often undeserved “shame” messages.

When we act badly, in opposition to our values, it may cause us to have a guilty conscience. Shame, on the other hand, is a deeply held belief that we are an unworthy person. When a child is told, “You are such a bad girl/boy!” it can become a shaming identity.

Shame and Guilt

When we feel guilty, we often want to reject, deny or defend our actions, “acting out” to distract attention from or excuse our bad behavior. Children can experience guilt as early as three to six years old. An example would be telling a lie about stealing a cookie.

The seeds of shame may also begin in childhood, often emanating from childhood experiences of neglect, abandonment, abuse, humiliation or messages of disrespect.

“Good” Guilt

  • We feel psychologically uncomfortable about something we said or did that is wrong or conflicts with our values.
  • A guilty conscience motivates us to be accountable, to make amends, to learn and change.
  • We may seek forgiveness from a person we offended in order to repair and heal the relationship.
    Selfishness, gossip or unfairness at someone’s expense provokes guilt if we value and respect the rights and welfare of others.

Unhealthy Guilt

  • Feeling psychologically uncomfortable about our conduct measured against unrealistic standards or expectations.
  • Feeling guilty or responsible for someone else’s bad or rude behavior (a friend or family member).
  • Feeling guilty for being happy or alive when others are ill, suffering or grieving.

Shame

  • A subjective internalized feeling and belief of being a worthless person; fundamentally flawed.
  • A humiliating belief that others see us in the same negative way as we think of ourselves.
  • Treatment of individuals like objects, without regard for human dignity, obliterates one’s sense of self-respect or worth.
  • Degrading, unjust or cruel treatment by others invokes humiliation and shame.
  • Association with and proximity to another’s cruel or disgusting behavior, an environment or circumstance may cause a shame identity.

Understanding the difference between guilt and shame is important. We have a choice to change and also to repair damage caused by our guilt-producing behavior

Shame is more complex. It can become part of one’s identify – a belief that one is a fundamentally flawed or unworthy person. Children who are shamed can be robbed of their own identity. Adults may be shamed when their dignity is stripped away or when they engage in morally offensive, cruel or illegal conduct. Redeeming one’s dignity is much more difficult than simply changing bad behavior.

Most of us have experienced guilt or shame at some point in our lives. What about you? I Certainly have. My soon-to-be-released book will include more about these and other challenging issues. If this information resonates with you, please read my other blogs at ToughTalkCoach.com.

Esther C. Bleuel
MF, MFT, MDR
President and Founder
Esther is dedicated to empowering leaders and teams to improve the quality of their work and interpersonal relationships through the mastery of conversational skills. Contact Esther today for assistance with your tough conversations.