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Shame vs. Guilt

By Shannan Blum, LMFT, CCATP-CA

Guilt and Shame can be confusing to many, and yet they influence our mental states and mental health. Understanding the difference between the two can be helpful in changing how we speak to ourselves in our own head (our self-talk). If we are parents, it can also be influential in how we speak to our children. This will then be what they begin hearing inside their own head. So, let’s explore.

Let’s start with Guilt and move onto Shame. Guilt has two elements: appropriate and inappropriate guilt. Guilt is the emotion that tells me: “I’ve done something outside of my core moral code or values, and I bear primary responsibility for that violation.” When guilt is ‘appropriate’, it is an adaptive and helpful emotion. It allows us to hold that action against our values and experience discomfort. The discomfort provides an experience to examine the following:

  1. Do I want my values to shift? If not, then 
  2. I examine how to bring my behavior back into alignment with my values.
  3. Yes, I believe some of my values ARE shifting, and I can see the behavior is in line with a new value system. In either instance, the discomfort should resolve. 

  Next, Inappropriate guilt involves:

  1. Feeling guilty when I have not engaged in a behavior that violates my values, or 
  2. I am taking responsibility for something that is not something I am responsible for or at fault for, or at least it isn’t primarily my responsibility. 

These are especially important distinctions if we are holding onto actions from our childhood and experiencing guilt over them. Experiences like childhood abuse or traumas in which adults were the responsible party. Experiencing inappropriate guilt for extended periods of time can definitely develop into feelings of shame.

Shame is the feeling that tells me: “I am flawed, defective or ‘broken’ in some way that leaves me unworthy of love, connection and belonging.” Shame is highly destructive because it convinces us “I AM (something)…” which feels like a permanent state, along with the condition that we are unworthy of being with others. So we isolate, hide, push others away, believe we will hurt or inflict ‘badness’ on others, etc. 

I do NOT hold the opinion that there is ‘healthy shame’ – that’s more like guilt. I believe there is no healthy shame as it’s defined here. For my purposes when working with clients, shame is to be identified and challenged. Developing self-compassion, loving gentleness and disputing the idea that we are unworthy of connection or belonging is vital. 

To summarize, a key difference to remember between the two: guilt is about behavior: “I did something wrong,” while shame is about my being: “I am wrong.” One is adaptive and helpful because we can change our actions, make amends, align actions back to values (guilt), while the other is toxic, destructive and dangerous. Shame is dangerous because it incorrectly convinces us we are unworthy, broken and defective and that this is a permanent way of being. Here’s how guilt and shame can show up in our parenting or our self-talk and how to adjust and challenge it: 

To begin, ask yourself some Socratic Questions (we’ve included a PDF for you to use later): 

  • Is this thought really true?
  • How do I know it’s true?
  • What is the evidence for this thought?
  • What is the evidence against this thought?
  • Am I basing this on facts or feelings? 
  • Is this thought using black/white thinking, when reality is more complicated?
  • Can I think of any times when this thought has not been true?
  • Is this thought helping me or hurting me?
  • Who would I be if I let go of this thought?
  • What could I do if I let go of this thought?
  • Am I willing to release this thought?
  • What might happen (pro/con) if I let go of this thought? Can I live with that? 

Then, after answering some or all of the questions, you can begin formulating disputes or alternative responses to the shame-based thought. Here are some examples to help you get started. We’ve included some for parenting, as well as for our internal self-talk: 

Shame v. Guilt in Parenting
Shame – Instead of thisGuilt – Say This
“Shame on you for lying, you know better!”“I feel hurt when you lie, so let’s see how we can work on telling the truth more.”  
“You could never do what he/she does”“You each have very different abilities and talents.” 
“You’ve ruined my life”“The circumstances I’m finding myself in are really difficult for me.” 
“We are so disappointed in you.”“I feel disappointed with the situation we are facing right now.” 
“You were a mistake.” “I wasn’t ready to make parenting decisions when I became a parent.” 
“Bad boy/girl/kid.” Or comments like “Just be good for once, stop being so bad!” “Hitting each other isn’t okay, how can I help you right now?” 
Challenging Shame in Self-Talk
Shame – Instead of thisDispute – Mentalized Statement
“I’ll never be good enough/worthless for them.” “I am working on accepting that my worth isn’t based on what others think of me.”  
“All I ever am is bad/wrong or unacceptable.”“All people have both positive/negative qualities, we aren’t ‘all good or all bad’ – I am a whole person and learning to believe I am acceptable just as I am.” 
“I’ll never get the life I want.”“I can work on creating the life I want in small parts, and learning to work through disappointing experiences is part of that. “Never and always” rarely exists!” 
“I’m always rejected, left alone/out.”“Feeling rejected is really difficult, it’s normal to feel sad or hurt, yet ‘never and always rarely exist’ so I can work at building connections with people who are healthy.” 
“It’s always my fault.” “I can take responsibility for my unhealthy actions even when it’s uncomfortable, using ‘always’ isn’t accurate, although it might feel that way sometimes. ” 
“I’m dirty/gross.”  “The things that were done to me might have been/were dirty or gross; however, I am learning to accept that this is a false belief about me as a person and I am okay just as I am.”

Deconstructing and re-constructing shame-based thinking is an incredibly powerful step in healing our own wounds and in guiding our children. It can lead our children to have improved ideas about themselves and their abilities, help them engage more in social settings, try new activities and skills, and build resilience and perseverance. These are also the benefits it can provide for us as adults, it just might take a wee-bit longer – but frankly, who doesn’t want a bit more of all of these benefits? If you want help reducing shame, call our office and set up an intake appointment to get started – 281-210-6677!

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