Separating shame from guilt

What is the difference between shame and guilt. Between ‘feeling’ guilty and ‘being’ guilty? It’s a conundrum of biblical proportions, and it seems we’re suffering from an epidemic of misplaced guilt.


Sometimes a theme emerges during a week’s worth of counselling. A theme that evryone seems to struggling with. This week is was guilt and shame. In a court of law we are innocent until found guilty and to ensure the process is fair it is held in public for all to see. But all too often in the court of our own mind we are judge, jury and prosecutor, with no one there to evaluate if we’re even being fair.


Being Guilty

BEING guilty is the easier of the two to understand; I am in a bad mood, I snap at my colleague. My conscience beeps…  I own what I did, I say sorry, and that’s the end of it. On a bigger scale, I might have robbed a bank, I am caught and convicted. I may feel sorry or not, but my apology to society involves being temporarily locked away.

And then there is the guilt that results from unintentional pain. Sometimes we are guilty because we did something that hurts another, despite it being the right thing to do. If we decide to end a fizzled out relationship we are ‘guilty’ of hurting the other party. It may be for all the right reasons, but our act had a consequence. We can say sorry, even though the hurt was not the intention. Just because we meant well and didn’t intend pain, doesn’t mean we can’t say sorry for pain that we inflicted.

Feeling Guilty

FEELING guilt(y) is a whole other kettle of fish and for some it can be a constant state of mind. At the deepest level some people feel guilty for just being alive. Everything they think, feel, or do is filtered through a lens of inner guilt. If you bump in to them THEY will apologise. Empathetic and caring people raised on a diet of emotional blackmail wrapped up in distorted love are likely to experience excruciating and constant guilt. And people who hold themselves to a high standard often experience guilt for not living up to their own expectations.

In a beautifully inspiring Ted talk, shame and vulnerability reasearcher Brene Brown refers to this kind of guilt as shame, and says we are currently living in an epidemic of shame. I warmly recommend her talk to anyone who recognises themselves as feeling guilty about almost anything. On the outside you may look like someone who can never take criticism, becoming defensive at the slightest hint to imperfection, but in reality you are already so caught up with feeling so bad about you are that you just can’t process the external criticism on top. And we ALL have aspects of this kind of wounding in our psyche.

Shame is sticky and toxic

While you can say sorry for ‘guilt’ and be done with it, shame hangs inside the psyche like a toxic cloud. We are shamed when our very ‘being’ is judged as failing. It can be as blatant as ‘you should be ashamed of yourself’ and as subtle as a sudden silence in the room when you walk through the door. Families carry shame and as 0
John Bradshaw explains in ‘Healing the Shame that binds you’, one generation will hand down its shame to the next. In some families shame, instead of love, is the currency of relationship. The price you pay for being allowed to belong.

If you have been looked at with eyes full of shame you will inevitably carry that into your own life. And when we have been shamed as children, we continue to allow ourselves to be shamed as adults, by others, but more constantly and destructively, by our own thoughts. And thus shame increasingly leads to a low sense of self-esteem, and a healthy attitude to our genuine true flaws is drowned out by a choir of demons singing your shame-song at each and every opportunity. So while guilt for something you do can be tested and apologised for, shame is untested and unproven, springing from an internal world of fantasy and thought.

I may say, ‘but you have nothing to be ashamed of’, to a friend who has experienced repeated beatings as a child, or bullying at her school, but inside this person remains the whirlwind of thoughts that repeat the mantra; ‘it was me, it was my fault, I made this happen’. And how often do we actually go around telling others our most shameful secrets and thoughts anyway? Shame hides its face and doesn’t want to hear the wisdom of an external judge who says ‘that’s just wrong, you’re not all bad… you’re just imperfectly perfect.”

Shame can only be fought in the clear light of day, where healthy Love can soak into every cell of a person’s being and chase away the toxic fumes. But how do you open up to love when you don’t think you are worthy of it?

Fighting shame in public

If we don’t open up about our own patches of shame, it becomes a vicious cycle. But that takes great courage. Otherwise, as Brene Brown says, it will become an epidemic where we act from our own shame and inflict it upon others.

Brave people like John Bradshaw and Brene Brown are opening the door on shame. We need to do the same. We need to stop giving shame a home by burying her deeply in our core of being. Shame dies in the cold rational light of day and evaporates in the powerful beam of healthy love. The kind of love that says we can be who we are, just as we are, imperfectly perfect, trying to do our best. And once we start to get the hang of receiving that kind of love, we need to cultivate it in the way we talk to ourselves, eventually drowning out the choir of self-esteem demons, not with shouts of despair, but with giggles of absurdity. You’ve rumbled them, now they can go home.

Explore your guilt/shame, don’t let it hide

So next time you feel crippled by guilt, sit yourself down and ask yourself:

– what am I feeling guilty about/of… and is it something I have done, or is it something in the realm of my thoughts. Do I dare hold it up to the clear light of day and see the absurdity of it?

– if it is something I’ve done, do I need to say sorry to someone or to myself? Will my guilt/shame stop me from admitting making one little mistake, because I believe myself to be one big mistake?

– if my feelings of guilt come from inside my fantasy world, do I dare test its truth, with someone else, with a more authentic part of my self. Would it stand up in the cold light of day, or in the warm glow of love?

The clearer you get about the appropriateness of your guilt, the better you will be at owning your part in a conflict, with a clear mind and without recriminations. And then you will also become less sensitive to misdirected guilt and shame missiles from others. Love yourself is the hardest and most courageous act for someone who has been shamed. But it is not impossible and it will not only heal you, but gradually help heal a shame-filled world.

More from Bradshaw on youtube

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