We need to have a discussion about guilt and shame. Often we don’t know the difference between the two. We hear or are told from a very young age “They should be ashamed” or “you should be ashamed”. From a very early age guilt and shame are treated the same, and often behaviors are shamed by our parents, our community and our religion.
The difference is that guilt is feeling bad about something you have done. You cut someone off in traffic, and you feel bad about that. You told your partner that you hate them, and you feel bad about that. Shame on the other hand, is believing as though you are bad, who you are, who you always will be is bad. When therapists work with people to find empathy, we work with them to find a concept of guilt. We want people to feel bad for things they have done that cause pain to other people or things. Without guilt we would have destroyed each other long ago as we wouldn’t have cared if we hurt someone or they died because of our actions. Guilt is what let us survive before we had all the technology to keep us alive and we were roughing it out on the planes, just us, our intellect, and our capability to care about each other against a very hostile world. Shame on the other hand does nothing but cause suffering.
When someone is ashamed or shamed, the belief is that they are all bad. Well, if someone is all bad, then they can never be good. There is no chance for change, for light, or beauty. There is only darkness and will only ever be darkness. Can you see why shame is a big problem when it comes to healing and recovery? If we feel guilt, guilt means that we did something bad but can do something better in the future. There is an inherent belief that we are overall good, and that even though we make mistakes we can do better in the future. It is a belief that we can learn from our mistakes.
Shame cripples. It is 1000 pound weight tied around your heart that keeps you from being able to recover and move through life. Shame not only keeps you from being able to see your own beauty, but it keeps you from being able to see the beauty of everything around you. It keeps you from feeling a sense of belonging. Brene Brown said “Our sense of belonging cannot be greater than our sense of self-acceptance”, and our sense of self-acceptance will be hindered by our sense of shame.
We all make mistakes. Every one of us is an imperfect being that does imperfect things. At times these imperfect things impact ourselves, and at times they impact others. They key isn’t calling ourselves and idiot, or calling ourselves stupid, as these imply that we are too stupid to ever do anything else. The key is in noticing what the mistake was and learning from it. When we see our mistakes for what they are and learn from them, we can let go of the guilt once the lesson is learned. We keep the concept that we are good people that have made mistakes clear, and with that we can let others see that we are good people. It is easier to let people see our imperfect selves because it is OK. It is easier to see other’s imperfect selves, because we know they can be imperfect and still be a good person.
We all want to feel as though we belong somewhere. Whether that’s a family, a community or a religion we not only want to fit in, but feel as though we are accepted. In truth though we can’t feel as though we are accepted by others without believing within ourselves that we are acceptable. That means we have to ditch shame and focus on guilt. When I let myself feel guilty I can know that I did something wrong while still being a good person. I give myself more room to find myself acceptable when I make mistakes. Truly, when you see yourself as acceptable even with your imperfections, you can finally let others see all of who you and finally feel as though you are accepted and as though you belong.