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Guilt or Shame?

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Guilt and shame are powerful feelings.  Many people experience them on a daily basis.  For some, they are feelings to be avoided as “inappropriate” in our current society. For some, they are tools or weapons used consciously or unconsciously to get children or adults to behave the way we want them to. For some, they are  ever-present and smothering.

I distinguish between guilt and shame.  Guilt, when internally experienced and heeded, is a productive emotion that leads to a change in negative behavior patterns. It is the “Godly grief” that 2 Corinthians 7:10 describes as leading to the genuine understanding that I have done wrong and hurt myself and others, and that I need to behave differently. Guilt says, “I have done wrong.”

Shame is a feeling that says, “Something is wrong with me”.  It is a statement describing identity rather than behavior.  It cannot lead to a change in behavior because the problem is “all of me”, as the character Hiccup says in the wonderful movie, “How to Train Your Dragon”.  The language of shame says, “What’s wrong with me?”, “Why can’t I …”, “I’m always/never…”, “I am (a screw up, a goof ball, a fool, fill in the blank…)”.

Shame speaks with the language of identity (“I am…”) rather than the language of deeds (“I did…”). As such, it makes change nearly impossible to conceive, much less execute. If the problem is who I am rather than what I did, there is no hope for change.

Think about the language you use on yourself.  Think about the language you use on others, or on your kids.  If you say things like “What’s the matter with you?!”, or “You are such a …” as you correct your child, you are very likely shaming them rather than reproving them productively.  Rather speak to their deeds: “That was inappropriate to do.”, or “You hurt your sister. That was wrong.”  In this way, you help train the child’s moral compass and help them to learn how to define right and wrong accurately.  You also make the problem a fixable one rather than a permanent one; the problem is outside the individual rather than the individual themselves.

We can do this for ourselves as well.  When you hear, “Agh!  Why can’t I ever get this done?”, or “I don’t know what’s wrong with me that I …”, you are using shame language.  Try shifting from statements of identity to statements of action: “I made a mess of that situation.  I will try to do it differently next time.”, or “I’m sorry I hurt you.”, or  “I see what I did, and I don’t want to do it again.”

Shift your language into language of hope rather than hopelessness.  When you describe genuine wrongdoing, make sure you use the language that describes it as wrong-doing, not wrong-being. It can take work to set the oppressive and impossible weight of shame aside, but it is worth the effort.