For the longest time, I thought guilt and shame were the same thing. I would often say I felt guilty about something when what I really meant was I felt fundamentally flawed. Not good enough. Hiding some deep dark secret that I was sure made me unlovable. The farther down my own healing path I went, I learned that there is a massive, critically important difference in the two. Once I understood this, I could begin to address the real issue: Deep shame about the core of who I was. As long as I was under the illusion that it was simply guilt, I could not heal completely. So today I want to share with you what I have to come to know about guilt vs. shame in case it helps you too.
Guilt is always about out behavior, our decisions, and our our choices being out of alignment with our values, morals and who we know ourselves to be.
We can act in a way we don’t feel proud of and make amends, correct the mistake, or adjust or behavior in some way and feel better about ourselves.
If I lie to someone, and one of my core values is honesty, I will feel guilty because I acted in a way that is not in integrity with myself. Once I see my error, I can own my choice, apologize to the person, look at why I felt the need to lie, course correct and move on. In essence, I can let myself off the hook and treat myself with some measure of grace and compassion. I am not an awful person; I have just acted in a way that I did not like and did not feel good.
If I am steeped in shame and I lie, it’s a whole different story. My response is no longer simply about my behavior; it is about who I am. I will attack and berate and humiliate myself, condemning myself as the worst person on the planet. I will say and believe the most horrific things about myself, like I’m a piece of shit, who could love me, I ruin people’s lives, etc. Or if someone points out that I have lied, I will attack and berate them, hurling accusations and venom at them in order not to feel my own pain.
Shame tells me ( among other things) that something is wrong with me. I am deeply flawed, defective, alone, and not ever going to measure up. It assures me that nobody will ever understand me, and even if they did, they will be so disgusted by me that they will run away screaming. Shame isolates me and makes me believe that there is no hope for me. Shame takes me down an endless spiral of self degradation, desperation, humiliation, self betrayal, self abandonment, self rejection and self annihilation. I am not exaggerating when I say that unresolved shame is at the heart of addiction and violence. Shame kills.
Here’s why. Shame is a no win proposition. How do you come back to liking yourself when you truly believe that the self you are is worthless? There’s not a way to return to any level of esteem when you loathe the very core of who you are. There is no way to repair the relationship you have with yourself when the self you know is beyond redemption. It’s not possible to return home to yourself when the self home is fraught with danger and lack of safety. Guilt allows this coming back to; shame does not. It’s soul shattering and spirit crushing and not how we were meant to live.
The good news is you don’t have to live like this. Actually, it’s not even living. it’s surviving. Going through the motions. Pretending to be happy when you are dying inside.
You are intended to feel vital, resilient and alive in your life. Comfortable and peaceful in your own skin. And this is not possible when you suffer from shame. Shame keeps the bad stuff in and the good stuff out. The bad recycles and swirls and recirculates but ultimately never finds its way out to make any space for the good.
Addressing shame is a foundational piece of the work I do with clients. If this speaks to you, reach out and we will talk about how I can support you.