Shame Versus Guilt

Recently I have been reading the book, “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brenee Brown. It’s a wonderful book if you are looking for something to read. 

What I was focused on was her definition of shame and guilt and how the two were indicators of how someone would handle difficult life events. 

She shared that shame was a more internalized feeling.  We assign emotions that are negative to our core self when feeling shame.  For instance, “I am a loser.”  While guilt is more of an external feeling. We blame behaviors rather than self. For instance, “I should not have skipped that interview.” 

When we feel shame, it’s a much harder emotion to balance and correct as its internalized, while guilt is one that we can see as a behavior that we can change.  We can’t easily change if our core self is a loser, but we can change if we skip interviews. 

She mentions that people that feel more shame than guilt are often the ones that have more mental health difficulties and are often the ones that complete suicide or are drawn to addiction. 

This made me think of trauma survivors that either freeze, flee or fight.  If you are more likely to freeze during a trauma, you will also most likely have a difficult time with dealing with the aftereffects than say someone, who fought or ran.  I am guessing that more times than not, these same folks have a great deal of shame for not fighting or running.  Therefore, it makes sense that they too would struggle more.  Shame is such a strong emotion. 

Why I bring this up to you all today is so that when you are dealing with others, you are more aware, but also if you are a parent, or a caregiver, you might want to help kids work on the guilt response rather than the shame response.  In this way, they learn early on, a method that will help them see that change is possible. 

If kids hear that they are a loser at home rather than that they made a mistake in behavior, they will develop a strong shame response.  A shame example would be, “Johnny, you are so stupid and a good for nothing, so I expect you to do that!”  A guilt example would be, “Johnny, you made a mistake and mistakes happen.  You can try again tomorrow.” 

If they learn that they made a mistake in their behavior, they will learn a guilt response that is more readily changed. 

As therapists, we have many tools at our disposal that help change occur if behaviors are involved, to include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  The work to change the sense of self-worth however is more tedious and longer term. 

I hope that this gives some of you an insight into either yourself or your children.  Pick up Brenee Brown’s book. She has a lot of great information and she is both funny and insightful.

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