Shame and Guilt: What is the Difference?

Brenée Brown, a well-known social researcher, who has done extensive work in guilt and shame, writes that guilt is actually a useful emotion that lets us know when we’ve done something that conflicts with our individual value systems. Guilt can inspire us to take correction action and strive to do better in the future.

Shame, on the other hand, is a powerfully negative emotion that involves deeply internalized feelings and beliefs that we are flawed or unworthy of happiness or love. Shame is destructive and never useful.

In other words, guilt tells us when we’ve done a bad thing while shame tells us we ARE bad. Some experts differentiate between the two emotions this way: Guilt is involved when we break society’s rules. Shame is involved when we break our own personal rules.

Shame can contribute to doubts about a person’s entire existence and identity. Often, (but not always), shame is rooted in childhood and often involves feelings of low self-esteem. According to Brown, shame contributes to feelings of isolation and disconnection. It is highly correlated with addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, bullying, violence and even suicide.

Guilt and Shame in Addiction

Guilt and shame are frequently involved in addiction. Brown states that it is shame which compels people to numb it. Shame is a powerful and painful emotion which people want to jus “go away” by using drugs, alcohol, prescription medication, sugar, gambling, exercise, work, speeding and many more self-destructive behaviors.

As addiction escalates, people are often compelled to behave in ways that conflict with their personal morals and values. Many individuals experience guilt and regret for the years wasted on addiction, including damage to important relationships, personal health or the money spent on addictive habits and behaviors.

As guilt and shame grow, an addicted person is likely to engage in more of the negative behavior, creating a growing downward spiral as feelings of being bad or unlovable are compounded. It is thus easy to see how guilt and shame can derail recovery.

Coping with Guilt and Shame

  • Be honest. Admit the feelings of guilt and shame and face them head-on. Don’t try to hide or camouflage the wrongs you have done to yourself or others. Sometimes, people can achieve this with the assistance of an experienced and understanding therapist. Often, letting go of shame and guilt, building self-esteem and worthiness is a huge breakthrough and liberation for individuals.
  • Examine your feelings closely. You may realize that shame is irrational or due to things that were completely beyond your control, often instilled in childhood and through adverse experiences in your younger and formative years.
  • It’s always possible to make positive changes and stop repeating the past. Although making changes takes time, it’s important to stop the behavior that prompts guilt and shame. However, be aware that some things can’t be fixed, only accepted and forgiven. Again, a good therapist can be of tremendous help in this process.
  • Develop empathy and practice forgiving yourself and others. Forgiving yourself and accepting that you are a human being should be a priority. If appropriate, apologize and make amends to yourself and others, but don’t judge yourself too harshly.
  • Find ways to volunteer or be of service to others. Making the world a better place will build self-esteem and allow you to realize your value as a human being.
  • Let go of the past. It’s over. Dwelling on the past will keep you trapped in negative feelings.
  • Remind yourself frequently that you are a valuable human being deserving of self-love and self-nurturing as well as love and nurturing through others.

If you are struggling with addiction compounded by feelings of guilt and shame, seek a drug or alcohol addiction center or rehab that offers treatment tailored specifically to your needs. Psychotherapy and counseling are critical, especially if you have experienced past neglect, trauma or abuse.

For more information, here is the talk by Brenée Brown on “the lethality of shame”, one among many YouTube videos around shame and guilt:

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