Shame Is Not The Same As Guilt

Do you know the difference between shame and guilt and why the difference is important?

I didn’t.  Not until I started reading up on it, anyway.  It made me go back and think about some of my experiences a little differently.

Part of why shame and guilt are confused is because it’s easier to talk about guilt than it is to talk about shame, especially when shame is lying ever-so-sneakily under your guilt.

Shame hits a lot closer to home, and it’s a lot harder to admit.  Let me show you what I mean.

Until recently, I worked with kids in the child welfare system.  I’ve done it for a number of years off and on.  These are kids who are horrifically abused and neglected and are removed from their homes by government agencies to protect them.

I will tell you now that truth is far stranger than fiction.  Your best imagination can’t come close to what these kids experience, unless you know it from the inside out yourself, or are in a helping profession, too.

With adults, it’s one thing.  But when you work with kids, they are at the mercy of their parents, the County social workers and their agency mandates, the community social services agencies and their staff, and the family court system.

I experienced what’s called “vicarious trauma.”  Basically, it means that when you are exposed to trauma you didn’t experience directly, you empathize with the people you serve and can develop trauma symptoms that can be debilitating, as if you’d experienced it directly.

But it wasn’t the stories and the histories of the children that were traumatizing.  It was feeling guilty that I couldn’t protect them from the systems in place that are supposedly there to protect these children, but many times, actually re-victimize them.  Not intentionally or out of malice, but just out of dysfunction.

I couldn’t stop the decisions and actions that had life-altering consequences for these children.  And I watched as the children suffered, unable to do anything about it.  And, of course, it wasn’t logical to think I could change these systems from my role.

Guilt motivated me to keep trying, though.  But shame is ultimately what forced me to stop.  I couldn’t do enough.  I couldn’t be enough for these kids and their foster parents.  It became a personal failing.

When you’re on these kind of front lines, it’s easy to lose perspective.  When you’re dealing with such young children in so much pain, even easier.

Still, I could easily dismiss this underlying shame.  I could get angry and blame these systems, and the people who failed to do what they could’ve to protect these children (and I did).

And all of this is true, but underneath, it was the painful experience of not being enough.  It would be easy to miss.  The shame is invisible, and yet, so incredibly toxic.

But if I want to be in a position to be creative and have the chance to make a difference in the world, this underlying shame gunk has to be recognized so it doesn’t keep me from my natural strengths as an introvert and highly sensitive person.  I have to recognize when I’m dealing with shame–and not guilt.

Here are some things I’ve learned about shame and guilt:

Both shame and guilt play an important and positive role in keeping us connected and in relationship.

If you have no shame, all that matters to you, is you and your needs.  If you have no guilt, all that matters is what drives you forward, even if it hurts others.

Shame and guilt are both normal feelings we all (or, most of us) have.  After all, Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development include Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, and Initiative vs. Guilt.  Shame and guilt are kind of just part of the growing-up process.

The idea is that you want to develop and experience the positive outcome, and have “just enough” of the negative to keep you connected to your family and your community.  It’s a matter of balance and keeping them in the right ratio.

Too much shame, and it’s hard to be truly autonomous or independent.  Your focus becomes on not letting other people see or know how imperfect you are.  You don’t do anything that you think or know might risk their love.  It’s about how bad you might be.

The fear is that you’re not worthy and deserving of love despite (or because of) your imperfection.

But with “just enough” shame, you can be vulnerable in relationship and make meaningful and strong connections.  Without vulnerability, there is no deep connection.

Too much guilt, and you’re paralyzed.  You’re afraid to try new things and venture out according to what drives you from the inside.

The fear is that you’ll do something wrong if you follow your inner guidance, your passion, excitement, or drive.

But with enough guilt, you are able to recognize when you’ve hurt others, acknowledge the impact of your actions, and look for ways to “fix” the situation.  It’s about what bad you might have done.

In short, the difference between shame and guilt?  I can’t say it any more simply than Brene Brown did in her TED talk (at 14:00 minutes):  Shame is “I am bad.”  Guilt is “I did something bad.”

When you are bad, there’s not really a whole lot you can do.  How are you supposed to change what makes you who you are?  You can’t.  There’s no solution in it.  The focus is only on the self.

But if you did something bad, then there is a course of action you can take to attempt to repair what you’ve done.  This is why guilt is good: the focus is on the other person, and making amends.

It’s a lot easier to imagine how you might take a step forward than it is to stand at the base of a mountain and imagine yourself at the top of it.


photo credit: Daddy David

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Eva Rubin, MPH/LCSW

Hi! I'm Eva Rubin, LCSW. I study the psychology and the art of how to live well as an introvert and sensitive person so that I can learn and share it with you.
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