Shame is bad.
Guilt can be good.
Shame is when someone eats an entire box of donuts and someone says, “You’re disgusting.” Or, “You will never be a good role model for kids”. Or something else equally shaming.
Guilt is when someone eats an entire box of donuts and someone says, “Eating all of those donuts in one sitting is kinda gross.” Or, “Eating all of those donuts isn’t something you want to model for your kids.”
Shame = YOU are wrong, bad, disgusting, an idiot, not good enough, etc.
Guilt = something you have DONE, an action or decision you’ve made, is bad, disgusting, and so on.
The difference may be in one word, but the difference is in reality, HUGE.
The difference between shame and guilt is whether or not we hate ourselves or something we’re doing.
Shame tells us (whether we heard it from ourselves or someone else) that there is something fundamentally wrong and disgusting about us. It tells us we aren’t good enough, we’re broken, we cannot achieve anything of value. Shame tells us that we have no value and never can.
Guilt, on the other hand, tells us when we aren’t doing something we approve of. Our actions, motives, or words aren’t lining up with our values or beliefs.
For example: Bob steals from Sandy.
Bob has three options.
Option A: Feel guilty.
Option B: Feel ashamed.
Option C: Feel guilty and ashamed.
Option A gives Bob the ability to say to himself, “hey, self – that was messed up! I don’t believe in stealing. I feel terrible about what I did. I know it was wrong.” This gives Bob the ability to make amends with the person and then make life changes to ensure he doesn’t steal again. This also allows Bob to tell himself that what he DID was wrong and bad and terrible. Bob does NOT believe Bob is wrong and bad and terrible. Guilt allows Bob to condemn his action of stealing, feel bad about it, make amends, then move forward with the intent of following through on his values and belief. Which, in this case, is ‘thievery is wrong’.
Bob also needs to look into why he stole, what his motives were, and so on. Guilt allows him to do that. It gives him the comfort that Bob is a good identity to have, a good person. Simply a person who made a bad decision and now needs to adjust his way of living to align his future actions with his values and beliefs.
Option B gives Bob a very limited doorway for positivity. This doorway is squeaked open only if Bob realizes he is shaming himself and needs to stop. Then targets his guilt and does the inner work.
If Bob doesn’t do this, and continues to shame himself, his inner monologue goes something like this.
“I stole something. I’m a horrible human being. Who steals from a working, single mother? I’m disgusting. No wonder I’m single, alone, hated, fat, gross, mean, etc. No wonder everyone hates me.” Bob feels disgusted with himself. He feels ashamed of who he is. Bob feels uncomfortable with his own existence and brings up every negative thing about himself, every negative situation, thought, and feeling from his life to back this theory up that Bob is indeed, a horrid excuse of a human being.
Guess was Bob does with this? He hates himself. And will repeat the thieving behavior. And then hate himself more. Rinse and repeat.
Shame keeps us locked in with whatever we hate about ourselves. Shame tells us there is no possibility for change because we are flawed at a basic level and can never be any good.
Shame lies to us and we do nothing to change.
Option C is what I’m fairly certain most of us feel. And our shame smooshes our guilt with a twenty pound dumbbell again and again and again until it’s little more than a twitching inkling in the background of our minds that only further backs up our shame’s reasoning for why we are horrid human beings who deserve to suffer in their horrid human fate because that’s just how life is and we’re all going to die anyway! See option B.
We have a choice.
Choose option A.
We all do bad things. We all have and we all will. They’re called mistakes and we instantly recognize we just hurt someone’s feelings or have that liver clenching moment when we realize we forgot our best friend’s birthday.
We all do things wrong. That does not make US bad people. Unless we value hurting people to get ahead. Unless we value chopping people up in little bits. Unless we think it is fun to hurt people, animals, children, etc… we are not bad people.
We make human mistakes because *ahem* we are human. Not robots of unfeeling perfect precision. Thank heaven!
When we do things wrong, it is our responsibility to feel our guilt and do something about it for the better.
And I KNOW this is hard advice to follow. Three years into a support group and four years into therapy and it’s only now really pinging for me. But it does make sense. I has sunk into my stubborn skull, darting past the negative loops of habit ingrained in my brain.
We can all change for the better.
We have to want to.
And if all we do is shame ourselves, we will never fully believe we are capable and deserving of doing better, of change in the direction we want to go.
We are deserving. We are valuable. We can change. We can allow our guilt to help us to take a realistic look at our behaviors and spring us into becoming who we want to become. Who we choose to become.