You’ve done someone wrong and it makes you feel horrible. Your feelings move you to apologize and make amends, doing all that is in your power to set matters right. It isn’t easy to do and certainly a hard lesson to learn, but you feel a lot better afterward.
You’ve done someone wrong and it makes you feel horrible. Your feelings cause you to think you’re such an awful person that you don’t deserve to be loved and respected by anyone. Each day, the memory of your bad behavior keeps reinforcing that message.
In which of the scenarios do you experience shame? In which one guilt?
Yes, there is a difference. And those two examples aptly demonstrate it. Although they start off the same way, feelings of either guilt or shame lead to completely different outcomes.
The Difference Between Shame and Guilt
Many people use the words “shame” and “guilt” interchangeably. However, they’re not the same from a psychological standpoint. Shame reflects how we feel about ourselves; guilt reflects how we feel about our behavior. Shame causes you to think, “I am bad”; guilt causes you to think, “I did something bad.”
As you can see in the examples at the outset, feelings of guilt about the wrong led to positive actions. You felt bad about your behavior, you fixed the situation, and learned how to behave differently in the future. On the other hand, the feelings of shame didn’t lead to anything positive. It didn’t provoke you to actions to make the other person feel better; it only left you feeling flawed and unworthy of love or belonging.
Shame is never healthy, nor useful. It only causes low self-esteem, feelings of unworthiness, and disconnection from others. And it normally leads to behaviors that keep reinforcing that faulty self-image. It’s like you get stuck in a repeating loop – I’m a bad person, I can’t do anything about it, so I might as well continue acting badly.
Guilt, on the other hand, can be healthy and useful. It can inspire you to take the actions that shame won’t let you take. And, while it may be nagging and painful, it can lead to acceptance, learning, and healing.
Why Shame Is More Damaging
Shame lies at the base of a lot of psycho-social problems. It is a trap because it causes you to hide and to avoid acknowledging and addressing your feelings.
This almost instinctive reaction, however, leads to isolation, keeping secrets, and worrying more about looking good than feeling good. You may end up becoming depressed, aggressive, being a people pleaser, committing infidelity, or perhaps abusing drugs and alcohol. All in an effort to avoid or numb out those overwhelming feelings of shame.
The problem is that this method not only shields you from the painful feelings of shame, it also shields you from having meaningful personal relationships. And that, in turn, only reinforces feelings of isolation, worries, and the belief that you’re just not worth anything to anyone. It’s a vicious and destructive cycle. And it can get even worse.
Once you’re crippled by shame, your capacity to feel genuine concern and guilt diminishes. As a matter of fact, your sense of being flawed and damaged can become so powerful and painful that it can actually kill any feelings for anyone else. This can then result in envy or lack of empathy, which could even lead to taking pleasure in hurting someone else.
A continuous and devious downward spiral.
However, not all is lost. Healing from the deep emotional pain caused by shame is possible. It certainly takes effort to replace the message of “I’m bad” with “I did something bad.” But this new message can serve as a powerful motivator for many more positive changes in your life – improved self-esteem, health, and interpersonal connections.