From the Jackson Hole News & Guide Column Sound Mind
As emotions go, guilt and shame seem to be universal across cultures, socioeconomics and demographic. While there is an important function to these emotions, they can also be extremely uncomfortable to deal with for a person.
Guilt is a feeling of responsibility (real or imaginary) or remorse for some offense, crime or wrongdoing.
Shame is the uncomfortable feeling that stems from the perception of something dishonorable, improper, unintelligent, committed by self or others.
Though the feelings of shame and guilt are often seen as the same thing, there are important differences between the two.
While the emotions can feel similar, shame has a strong relationship to bullying, depression, anxiety, body image issues, suicide, addiction and aggression. Guilt, on the other hand, has a connection with empathy and understanding other points of view.
Guilt is what we feel when we have made a mistake, an error or done something wrong. This is linked to one’s behavior that alerts us of an inconsistency between our behavior and our values. For example, “I did something bad” or “I made a mistake.”
The connection to empathy stems from feelings of remorse and the wish to make corrections or repairs, or ask forgiveness. Feeling guilt and then making amends is what allows us to learn from our mistakes, view a situation through another perspective and move on.
On the other hand, shame becomes more of an internal focus on self-image or worth. It becomes a belief such as “I am bad” rather than “I did something bad.”
Research shows that problems begin when shame becomes attached to a person’s self-image or sense of self-worth. While most of us have experienced shame at one time or another, it is the dysfunctional processing and accumulation of shame that can lead to eating disorders, domestic violence, substance abuse, social phobias, aggression, bullying, sexual offenses and other problems.
It might be a situation, either real or imagined, that may elicit shame. Shame is felt when we feel we are being perceived as inadequate because of our abilities, appearance or intelligence.
One response to shame can be to attack others as a defense mechanism. To avoid feeling shame, one may show contempt toward another person to shift the shame on them. Transferring shame to another person is a typical self-protective behavior in narcissists and bullies.
Regardless of the trigger, when shame is experienced the damage to self-worth can be toxic. Shame can elicit emotions such as jealousy, anger, rage and anxiety. In addition it can also lead to feeling isolated, sad, depressed, worthless or lonely as a result.
When shame results in self-attack, it can be overwhelming, and damaging to self-worth and self-esteem.
Brené Brown has done extensive research and written several books on shame. She suggests that shame requires examination through curiosity rather than judgment. Shame, if not processed functionally, can become accumulative. That means that it can build on previous memories when we experienced it and can influence our reactions and behaviors.
One such reaction to shame can be to “save face” to avoid the emotion. Another reaction may be to withdraw or hide from emotion. This can lead to behaviors that exacerbate shame such as addiction, harsh and self-critical thoughts or compulsive behaviors. See sidebar for some ideas on healthy ways to combat shame.
In the end, guilt and shame happen and are crucial for social development. These emotions keep people from acting entirely in self interest and keep us in line with our values and moral code. These emotions provide opportunities to learn and grow. When repairs are made after a mistake and one is open for self-forgiveness, it can be a powerful experience for growth and connection.