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.




I’m not sure if I’ve talked about vulnerability on this blog before. I know I have mentioned Brene Brown before, because I have seen a couple of her TED Talks and really enjoyed them. She’s pretty local to the Houston area, but that’s not really relevant, just a neat fact. I’m in the midst of reading through her most recent book, Daring Greatly (yeah, a B&N link, what do you expect?), and it is, in large part, about how being vulnerable to others is a strength, not a weakness, and necessary to find real connections.

Now, it is an interesting subject to me, because for a long time, I was very reluctant to open up to other people. A few years ago, I never would have been able to write a blog like this, for example. But some of what I have been reading has me wondering – am I really being vulnerable on this blog? Yes, I share a lot of personal details, but it is a very impersonal setting. Aside from those readers who are personally known to me, I will likely never meet any of my readers, and what others choose to say about me here has no real effect on me – while I can say I have never edited or deleted a comment, you have to take my word for it, because there’s no way for you to really know.

Real vulnerability comes from being open to the people around you. Now, this doesn’t mean telling everyone your personal secrets, but it does mean that the people you care about, to some degree, have to be allowed into your life if you want to form real emotional bonds. That’s hard for a lot of people. I mean, it was hard for me for a long time. I think that was a large part of why I didn’t have any close friends in St. Louis – I didn’t want to let anyone get close or open up to them. I’m not really sure why that is, but it kept me from forming any close friendships there, which is a large part of what led me to my suicide attempt last year (whoa, last year; has it really been that long?). 

Now, I’m not all the way through the book; I just finished a long chapter on shame. But that chapter kept me awake, and reading, even on a long night when I would otherwise have gladly gone to sleep. But if the rest of the book is like the chapter on shame, then I think a lot more people should read it. Check it out – Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. Read it, and get back to me.