Guilt and shame are NOT the same, at least in my opinion (humble or otherwise.) So, to be clear, I am not even consulting a dictionary on this one. We all have a real internalized understanding of these two words. We know – in our gut – what they feel like. I’d like to challenge how you think and feel about these words, and we know that thinking and feeling are almost the same thing! (To read more about how thinking and feeling are connected, check out “The Law of the Funnel!”)
I believe that guilt is good! Guilt is an internal warning that let’s us know we’ve fallen short of our best, or maybe we’re thinking about compromising a core principle. Feeling guilty means we have a conscience, by Jiminy! That’s good. And if we feel guilty before we act, we can prevent suffering – that’s good! If we feel guilt after we acted, we can and should make amends – that’s good, too! Guilt doesn’t feel good, but it is good, because it’s trying to keep us on the right track. It’s a feeling that makes us want to try harder. Guilt is trying to teach us something. If we pay attention to feelings of guilt today, tomorrow can be better. We can be better. As soon as we learn to deal with guilt and shame in a healthier way, we can know a deeper sense of self-acceptance.
Remember that feeling guilt is a very common human emotion, in fact it’s proof that we are human. We are imperfect, so let’s try to get over it. If we can fess up when we mess up, we can get up and get back on track! Hiding our imperfections is where the trouble starts.
Here’s how I try to think when I feel guilt:
G – Good!
U – Use
I – it to
L – learn for
T – tomorrow!
Feeling guilt? “Good! Use it to learn for tomorrow!” If we choose to think and feel that way about guilt, it will warn us and guide us in good ways.
Shame is as bad as guilt is good. It is toxic and in the most extreme cases – even lethal! Again, I’m not rewriting the dictionary, I just want to share this really helpful way to differentiate between guilt and shame. If you choose to change your thinking about these two words, it can be a real game-changer!
Shame can take root when, instead of fessing up, we cover up. Shame can also take root when we take on responsibility for someone else’s wrongdoings. Survivors of childhood trauma and abuse often carry feelings of shame for what was done to them. This is grossly wrong and leads to immeasurable suffering, some of it needless. Holding a secret, a slip, a sin, or a shortcoming gives it power to inflict pain for as long as it’s hidden. Only light can heal some wrongs – only the light of the truth. In AA circles I have often heard, “We are as sick as our secrets.” Secrets are the darkness that give mistakes, missteps, and misdeeds, their debilitating power. Secrecy assures suffering.
Here’s how I try to think about shame (and what I challenge you to believe):
S – Secrets
H – hidden
A – assure
M – misery
E – eternal.
Feeling shame? Secrets hidden assure misery eternal. Bring it into the light of truth. Only then can healing and freedom begin.
When I stopped seeing myself as a victim of childhood sexual abuse – and dared to speak about it – I stopped feeling shame. I also found out (shouldn’t have been a surprise) that I was not alone. I stopped seeing myself as a victim (I never use that word anymore) and saw myself as a survivor! That feels very different! The empathy and understanding I have – as a direct result of that past pain – are tools I use every day. Those tools were only available after I stepped out of the shame and into the light. You can read more about changing the victim mindset here.
So please remember that guilt and shame are not the same, and challenge you to try to change how you think and feel about guilt and shame. Here’s some great advice from one of my favorite authors:
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” –Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW
Core courage practices include:
1.) Asking for help
2.) Speaking your truth
3.) Owning your story
4.) Setting boundaries (Hear more about boundaries here!)
5.) Reaching out for support