Brené Brown was the first person I came across who distinguished between guilt and shame.
This is the way I see it, the first key difference is that:
Guilt can create connection.
Shame can result in disconnection.
Guilt comes up when we have acted hurtfully or poorly towards another person, or ourselves. Let’s say we didn’t keep a commitment to someone. The guilt we feel acts us a clarion call for us to take action and to let this person know that we’re sorry. This is an opportunity for us to repair the relationship by acknowledging the wrongs in our behaviour, thereby more deeply connecting us to this person, and maintaining a solid relationship with them. Guilt will also tap us on the shoulder when we’ve not kept our commitments to ourselves; it will say, “Hey, I’m not okay with this, you need to address it”.
Guilt yearns for us to have integrity. The word ‘integrity’ evolved from the Latin word for ‘wholeness’, so to stay in integrity, literally means to keep ourselves whole. The opposite of wholeness is fragmentation, so when we don’t stay in integrity with ourselves, we fragment, and experience disconnection. Guilt asks us to return to this wholeness by making the necessary amends. This connects us more deeply to our core self.
Shame is the opposite; it has the potential to cause disconnection.
Shame alienates us from both ourselves and others. When we’re experiencing shame we feel wrong, useless, not good enough, and our instinct is to usually isolate.
Shame is when we want to say “no”, but reach for “yes” because we are worried that people will see us as a mean person. Shame tells us we can’t be truthful about who we really are, and what we really want. Shame’s core belief is that we are not worthy of love, respect & attention.
Shame can really get in the way. It can stop us asserting boundaries, fully expressing ourselves, being at peace with ourselves & experiencing pleasure. Shame doesn’t do a gentle tap on the shoulder, it’s more like a whack round the head, and it’s showing us that we need to examine our core beliefs about ourselves, and discover when we first started to believe that we were not good enough, and therefore unworthy of love.
We also need to watch out that guilt doesn’t slide into shame. Guilt is about taking a truthful inventory of your life & staying matter of fact. Guilt says: “I did not do what I said I’d do, and I’m uncomfortable with that.” Guilt seeks to genuinely ask the question: “what do I need to do that will support me in doing it differently next time?” It’s practical and solution orientated.
Shame is a blame game. Shame will say, ” You’re awful for not doing ‘x’, if only you had more willpower, you must just not be good enough.’ You know you’ve been conversing with shame because you will feel completely down on yourself.
In order to distinguish between whether we’re feeling guilt or shame we can ask ourself this one question.
Is this feeling pushing me towards greater connection or disconnection? (And remember this feeling of connection or disconnection could be either towards yourself or others).
When we’ve figured this out, if it’s guilt we need to do some soul searching about what action will bring us back into connection with ourself and/or others.
And if it’s shame we need to start learning more about our patterns, and embark on a training in self love.