Shame & Guilt

Shame and guilt are often used synonymously but have different drivers. Guilt is more focused on your behaviour whereas shame is focused on your sense of self. An individual who feels guilty can consciously say “what I did was bad, but I am not bad”. Individuals who experience shame on the other hand feel bad, small, worthless, inferior and exposed to others. You can apologize for getting something wrong but it’s infinitely harder to come to terms with having a sense of somehow not being good enough.

While guilt is largely in the conscious realm, shame often is unconscious and experienced as intensely intolerable feelings. There may be an element of conscious awareness of shame such as physiological reactions (blushing, sweating, racing heart) but often shame gets split off through dissociation. As the shame goes deeper and deeper underground, over a long period individuals may often go the extreme of not feeling any shame whatsoever, instead displaying narcissistic, arrogant or boastfully proud behaviour.Guilt entails an appraisal that one has done something wrong in relation to another person. It implies that the guilty person has an awareness of having contributed to an outcome that is perceived to be wrong. Guilt can be viewed as an empathic response that helps to regulate our relationships with others; the focus of it is interpersonal. Shame on the other hand often has more to do with our relationship with our self. It is not necessarily connected to other people but more about how we look at ourselves; it tends to be intrapersonal. Shame and guilt lead to different responses. Feelings of shame tend to lead to a wish to hide away and to cover up that part of us which is thought of deeply undesirable. Guilt on the other hand can lead to restorative action; a wish to make amends and to repair.

Shame can be described as a regret or sense of responsibility to the self, which can be challenging to overcome. Sometimes our shame isn’t understood and so it is not always easy to reduce. Each person feels and responds to shame in different ways. People generally find ways to ease the emotion by using words that are less intense so that the shame is not felt or brought to life. Words such as “discomfort”, “humiliation”, “awkwardness” or embarrassment” are used in replacement of shame. People sometimes feel ashamed of some part of themselves without knowing why. A person might also feel shame when other people know about actions they feel guilty over.

Shame can be difficult to shift. When we are sad, we can release this by crying; getting angry, shouting and lashing out, however, shame stays inside us and intensifies without an easy channel for discharge. Shame can cause people to feel unworthy or inadequate and can lead to isolation, acts of self-punishment or other potentially harmful behaviours.

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