Guilt and Shame: Good and Bad Ways to Feel Bad

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As soon as you see how you are responsible for trouble, you are met by two emotions who offer to be your guide: guilt and shame. Which one should you go with? Is there a difference between the two?

It’s easy to confuse guilt with shame. People refer to them interchangeably, like twins who are often mistaken. Along with embarrassment and pride, they both belong to the family of moral emotions. They pop up whenever you do something wrong. But, other than that, they’re very different, and if you discover that shame has been your guide, you should ditch it as soon as possible and go the other way.

You can tell the difference by what they say. Guilt talks about something you did. Shame says the problem is who you are. Guilt makes you sorry that you lied, stole, cheated, or betrayed. Shame calls you liar, thief, cheater, and traitor.

Let’s say you’ve been to the track. You intended on gambling two hundred dollars on the horses. By the time you leave, you’re down a thousand dollars. If you go home and tell your wife the truth, subject yourself to her ire, and take your medicine, that’s guilt. If you make up some story and cover it up, that’s shame. The natural reaction to shame is to hide because you’re embarrassed. You don’t want anyone to know. Guilt moves you to repair. Guilt is a truth you tell. Shame is a lie you swallow.

Let’s look at another example. You’ve been drinking much too much. You can’t get through the day without at least two bottles of wine. Your husband is starting to look at you funny whenever you pour a glass. Guilt will help you admit you have a problem. Shame will cause you to deny. Guilt will propel you to get into counseling, or, at least, into keeping the cork in. Shame will cause you to drink when he’s not around. Remember, shame wants you to hide, so you’ll hide your drinking. Guilt puts it all in the open, so others can help.

How about this: Your kids have their legos all over the floor. It just drives you nuts. You ask them nicely to clean them up, but they blow you off. You yell. Your wife comes by and tells you you’re yelling. Guilt tells you she’s trying to help. Shame starts a war. Shame makes you argue back and the whole thing turns into a knock-down drag-out fight. Guilt says you can do better than you’ve done. Shame says you’re a yeller, so you yell some more. Shame is a threat to your self, so you defend yourself with everything you have. Guilt is open to suggestions.

One more. You’re due to visit your elderly mother in the nursing home. She’s not much fun to be around. She repeats herself, goes on forever about her aches and pains, and is unconcerned with anything you’re doing, except to the degree she might brag about you. You hate being around her and hate yourself for feeling that way. If you listen to shame, you’ll never visit. You’ll make excuses to stay away. If guilt is your guide, you’ll find a way to make it good. Guilt leads you to empathy and compassion. Shame pulls you away.

Guilt identifies a problem and gives you a reason to change, so you’ll do better next time. Shame prevents change. Guilt says you’re better than that; shame says, no, you aren’t. Guilt is a surgical strike into the offending action; shame is a carpet bomb. Guilt cuts out the tumor; shame is like killing your cancer by killing yourself.

Shame is such a powerful, toxic emotion that no one likes to feel it for long. You’ll do anything to make it go away. There are four things people do. The first, the most natural, is to withdraw, hide, stonewall, or deny you ever did anything wrong. You convert your shame to fear.

Another method of dealing with shame is to attack yourself, put yourself down, chew yourself out, tell yourself that you’re a piece off shit. Of course you made a mistake, you tell yourself, what do your expect from someone who is obviously defective! Voila, your shame is now self loathing.

If that doesn’t work, there’s always avoidance. By this, I mean distracting yourself from the shame. Drugs and alcohol are good for this. So is wild, promiscuous sex, shopping till you drop, or hours of mind-numbing TV. Where once there was shame, there is now addiction. Then, if you feel shame about your addiction, well, there’s always more addiction.

If you try those three methods and you still have shame, then the last ditch defense is to attack. You never did anything wrong, you say, it’s the other guy. With shame, you feel weak and defenseless; add a little bit of anger and, presto, you’re now the scariest one around.

With shame you’re caught up with yourself; with guilt you take the other person’s perspective. Guilt makes you more empathic, compassionate, and patient. It’s a spotlight that illuminates whatever you did wrong, rather than a blinding floodlight that makes everything about you look bad. Guilt is your new best friend. Condemn the sin, not the sinner. It’s not the person who is the problem; the problem is the problem.

So, now that you are ready to accept responsibility, take a close look at how you feel. If your feelings move you towards others, are more accepting of them, are more willing to make repair; that’s guilt. It’s safe for guilt to be your guide. If you’re tempted to hide, to lie, to argue, or to judge, then shame is showing you the way. Get a new guide. Look for someone called guilt.