Sunday, August 10, 2008

Shame and Guilt

There exist a great number of books, articles and websites on shame and guilt. I want to highlight the basic differences as well as relate the two topics to the acting out shame.

A distinction between Shame and Guilt

Shame is a feeling based on a thought as a person, you are bad, worthless, unforgiveable, defective and exposed. The associated thought is that everyone knows and rejects you. There is a belief that nothing can be done to fix the shame, that you never be able to get better, or that you can find redemption. There associated feelings of shame are despair, hopelessness, alone, loneliness, embarrassment, and humiliation. Consequences of feeling shame can include lack of respect for self and others, justification to abuse self and other, lack of empathy for other. Often shame exists in a cognitive framework of perfectionism or else. There is no chance for growth, communication or connection with others. The focus is on covering up, hiding, and displaying a false front to cover up the intense feelings. As a result of shame, individuals will engage in behaviors to compensate hoping others will like them. Individuals with shame loose a sense of boundaries in an attempt to cope with shame. Shame can be a normal feeling that everyone feels; the pathway out of the shame is to break the secret by being honest and talking to others. Some writers (e.g. Bradshaw) distinguish further between healthy and toxic shame. I prefer to use that all shame is unhealthy, and distinguish between shame and guilt.

Guilt is a feeling based on a thought that your behavior is wrong, bad, awful, terrible and hurtful. Guilt is the recognition that I violated my values and morality. Guilt is act focused. I feel guilty when I’ve done something wrong. When you feel guilty about something you have done, you do not have to feel shame. If you feel guilty about something you have done, you can feel regret, remorse. Because guilt is about your behavior, you usually can do something about it. From guilt, responsibility is created. I can apologize, forgive, learn, change, develop, and grow in response to the behavior. I can set boundaries, repair the damage, rebuild the relationship. Guilt can create relationships, connection and empathy. Experiencing guilt can facilitate boundaries, responsibility, respect and health. Guilt can be normal, appropriate, even healthy. What’s unhealthy is an inappropriate amount of guilt, or feeling guilty when I haven’t done anything wrong. If these feelings are present, you’re probably stuck in shame. With my clients, I encourage them to feel guilty. In the context of acting-out, many behaviors are wrong and guilt is the recognition that I erred.

Learning guilt and shame

Both shame and responsibility can be learned from the same places including family of origin, religion, school, friends, government, and society. In our society shame is taught more often than responsibility. Different cultures have different ways of shaming others including racism, sexism, and heterosexism. Teaching shame can be overt, specifically children are told they are bad, put down as worthless, and made fun of and teased in cruel ways. Their boundaries are violated by others in emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual ways and this teaches them shame. Covert shaming is sometimes difficult to recognize and is based in poor education, poor modeling, and unsupportive relationship. Learning guilt and responsibility is also a cultural process. When someone has traditionally said “shame on you,” the intent probably should have been “guilt on you.” Responsibility is learned through parenting, role modeling, and holding others accountable for their behavior. The goal is to learn from their mistakes.


One assignment I often give clients stuck in shame is to list 100, or even 500 shaming messages. Clients will often resist, but once the start they are amazed at how easy it is to identify the messages. The second part of the assignment is to challenge the underlying thinking errors that contribute to the shaming messages. This can be done by asking yourself the questions below.

  • What shameful messages did I hear growing up?
  • Who provided these messages?
  • How was your life impacted?
  • How do you hear shaming messages now?
  • How to these messages impact you today?
  • What shaming messages did you hear regarding sexuality?
  • How did these messages impact your sexuality?
  • If a minority status (woman, person of color, sexual minority), what shaming messages have you heard?
  • In what way have you given shameful messages to others?
  • How does shame relate to the acting out cycle?
  • How is shame both the cause and outcome of the cycle?
  • Do I believe/agree with the messages I heard? Why? Why Not?

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