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Shame vs. Guilt: Do You Know the Difference?

“We are more pained when one of our friends is guilty of something shameful than when we do it ourselves” Nietzsche

Often used interchangeably, yet incorrectly, there is a distinct difference between guilt and shame. Most of us have experienced both and it stands to reason that we have not enjoyed either feeling. Consistently I see these emotions in my clients being suppressed, as ironically most are ashamed of their shame.

However, like all emotions, shame and guilt stem from a thought and within that thought is the difference between the two. Think in terms of a small child who has made a mistake and accidentally broken a vase. The child understands immediately something ‘bad’ has happened and based on their thoughts, and maybe even their parents’ reaction they will now form their opinion of themselves and assume the feeling of guilt or shame.

For most of us, when we make a mistake we have a number of reactions, we may feel sad, bad, ashamed, embarrassed, or frustrated. Though mistakes and accidents are unintentional, how we recover from them is an unconscious decision. If guilt is your natural reaction to a mistake, you feel bad about what you did; you have adopted the thought that what you did was bad. This is an external feeling and is developed by our values around the years of 3 and above, if however, shame is what comes first, you have taken on and believed the thought that you, and not the action, are bad. Guilt says what I did was bad and shame says I am, as the whole of a person, am bad.

Shame starts at an earlier age, perhaps we feel violated, even from the womb, many children hide rather than be watched whilst potty training.

Can you think of a time that perhaps you felt you deserved the blame?

You are constantly living in regret or remorse, and feel that you constantly have to apologise?

These are feelings of guilt

If you think of a time that you feel mortification, embarrassment,

You felt humiliated by another’s words or actions, you feel contrite?

Or you discredit your own merits

These are feelings and thoughts of Shame

Both can be motivators, both emotions are normally a solution to a problem and can sometime assist us in our growth, however, if still feeling them later in life they can stop us living in the now, and start self-sabotaging, low self-esteem, procrastination. A mistake or series of mistakes does not a bad person make

Sadly, the line between shame and guilt is a very blurry one and too often the two can be confused.

One must realize that shame and guilt are part of the human emotional experience and cannot be catalogued as good or bad. These are, like all emotions, simply emotions

It is the beauty of the line of work that I have chosen to guide people back into the present and release, if they so choose these limiting emotions.

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