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The Difference Between Guilt and Shame

Don’t Be Ashamed If You Thought They Were the Same!

Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably but they’re actually different feelings. We feel guilt when we disappoint or injure someone else; shame, on the other hand is something we feel about ourselves. Shame reflects who we are or who we think we are—more specifically, it’s what we feel when we believe we are simply not good enough.

Guilt signals an opportunity to reflect on our core values and use them to take responsibility for our actions; it allows us to empathize when we have hurt someone. Guilt can be a positive thing; we can use it to grow.

Core shame stems from the messages we receive as children. If we’re fortunate to have parents, teachers, friends, and mentors who remind us we are “plenty good enough, just as we are,” that belief will likely carry over into adulthood. Conversely, if the early messages we receive are that we are somehow lacking or inherently unlovable, those, too, can carry over into adulthood. Once ingrained, it can be very difficult to silence those messages. The good news is—with practice and persistence, it’s entirely possible.

Here are some tips for minimizing shame:

  1. Compare it to guilt.

Ask yourself if what you’re really feeling is shame (for who you are) or guilt (for something you did). Simply determining what’s really going on for you is an important first step in processing your emotions.

  1. Talk about it.

Research professor and shame/vulnerability expert Dr. Brené Brown has written a great deal about the “shame surrounding shame” and how damaging it can be. “The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives,” Dr. Brown explains in her book Daring Greatly. “If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.” Some people can discuss shame with a close loved one, while others may feel more comfortable with a licensed therapist.

  1. Figure out where shame stems for you.

Sometimes, it helps realizing the tapes we play in our heads (“You’re not good enough to play in orchestra,” or “You should stick to books, not sports,”) are actually someone else’s mistaken or careless words. Find some positive affirmations that ring true for you (“I always do my best,” or “I am willing to make mistakes while I try new things,”) and repeat them several times a day, preferably in front of a mirror.

  1. Stay connected.

Maintaining friendships and meaningful connections with family, co-workers, and others is essential to everyone’s sense of well-being and particularly so for those struggling with shame.




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