Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are two concepts that, while closely related, don’t actually mean the same thing. Weird, I know. I mean, they’re spelled so similarly.Well, not really, but the two do kind of run together in my head, and have for a long time. They were touched on some at Menninger, but the way they were used they seemed almost interchangeable. It took me a while to realize that the two were different, and, more importantly, that their differences could be very crucial.

I mentioned the other day that I was reading Brene Brown‘s newest book, Daring Greatly. I finished it the other night, and I have to say that her book was the first one to explain the differences between guilt and shame in a way that actually made sense to me. Guilt, as a concept, is tied closely to action. Your actions are what make you guilt – when you feel that something you have done is wrong, like lying to a friend or stealing from a family member, then you feel guilty.

Shame is a whole ‘nother monster altogether. If guilt is the minor leagues, then shame is the majors. Guilt has to do something really big to get called up. Shame is worse than guilt, because while guilt is just feeling that your actions are bad, shame is feeling that you – as a person – are bad. When you lie, and get that little voice in your head saying “You’re a terrible person,” you’re feeling shame. When someone tells you that you’re worthless, or helpless, or something along those lines, they shaming you. They aren’t telling you that what you do is wrong – they are saying that you, as a person, are wrong, bad, or just messed up.

Shame is much harder on a person than guilt, because while fixing one’s actions, and thus averting guilt, can be relatively easy, changing how you see yourself to avoid feeling shame is much harder. And so trying to live in a world where same is not the first avenue people go to when they try to punish you is a good thing. Daring Greatly goes into how our society works on shame, in the workplace and in the family, and Brene Brown talks about how to change those things. They certainly don’t seem easy – we can only go as far as we’re comfortable with, after all – but after reading what she had to say, I think it’s worth reading for a lot of people. In particular, the posters here have some pretty good messages.



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