I’ve written before about the effects of childhood abuse and neglect. Among adult survivors of abuse it is common to see a persistent feeling of shame, which is characterized by an overall feeling of worthlessness, of “there’s something wrong with me.” This feeling is so painful that it is often suppressed and poorly understood. Furthermore, some individuals may have difficulty differentiating between guilt and shame. This article is to discuss the differences between shame and guilt, as supported by research.
To start, shame, in itself, is not inherently negative. It is a uniquely human emotion, evolved to allow individuals to live both a moral and a social life. Along with other self-conscious emotions, such as guilt and pride, shame allows humans to reflect on their behavior and adopt society’s standards. When developed appropriately, shame is an adaptive response to inappropriate behavior, that is, to a specific situation. However, when shame develops pathologically it can result in negative outcomes leading to significant impacts on mental health.
When triggered, shame takes over the whole self of the person. Shame acts as a judgment on our whole sense of self, proclaiming us worthless, inadequate, and powerless. This negative view of the self may start from the critical remarks of another person, yet becomes internalized as an integral part of the self. When in the grip of shame, the individual has difficulty differentiating their behaviors from their identity; he or she feels a lack of empathy; and is more likely to turn anger and blame towards oneself (or others).
When in a state of shame one’s internal dialogue may look something like this:
“I’m a terrible, awful, horrible person and will be until the end of days.”
“Nothing I do is ever right. All I do is screw up.”
“I’m so bad that no one will ever love me.”
“I don’t deserve others’ care, love, or compassion.”
In contrast to the self-focused and destructive experience of shame, guilt serves a different purpose. When we feel guilt we are more likely to want to repair the hurt we’ve caused. When experiencing guilt, the individual is able to identify their behavior as the source of the emotion (rather than making judgments about their whole self). When feeling guilty, the individual is empathetic towards the wronged party and he or she is able to think through, and take, reparative action.
When feeling guilt one may think the following:
“I made a mistake. Now I need to apologize and fix the situation.”
“I notice that my behavior has been causing pain and hurt. I need to focus on changing my behaviors and reactions so I’m not causing pain to others.”
“I’m a good person, I just made an error which I can repair.”
To sum up:
Shame is a feeling state that declares the whole person is bad or undesirable.
Guilt is a feeling state that states that the behavior was bad or undesirable.
Notice how shame is a current and future oriented feeling. It effectively states that the person is and will continue to be shameful. While guilt clearly focuses on past action, and how to make amends.
Choosing to progress in the direction of guilt, rather than shame can help individuals with high levels of shame-based feelings. That is, next time you feel that enveloping whole body and mind feeling of shame and worthlessness, ask yourself is there a behavior behind this, or am I triggered into a very familiar and painful experience without good reason.
How Shame Develops
Both guilt and shame surface and develop in very early childhood along with other self-aware emotions, such as embarrassment and pride. In a study of social emotions and self-regulation, children as young as 17 months of age displayed self-conscious emotions in a manner appropriate to the event.
In most cases, parenting styles predict whether children will respond with guilt or shame to a given occurrence. Children who experience caring and sensitive parenting are more likely to internalize their parents’ standards, and therefore act with guilt when those standards are violated. Children who experience criticism, anger, hostility, rejection and/or abuse are more likely to experience higher shame, as compared to children who experience positive parenting.
Parents may send the message of shame by using such admonitions as:
“You’re a bad boy/girl.”
“Can’t you ever do anything right.”
In contrast, parents who instill guilt in their children will focus on behavior, not the child’s whole self.
“It’s bad to hit. You need to apologize.”
“You’re a good boy/girl and I love you. I don’t like it when you do __________ behavior.”
Also, some traits and attitudes in the parents may interact to produce greater shame in children. Mothers who experienced depression and fostered a negative emotional environment were more likely to instill shame in their children, as compared to mothers who only experienced depression and did not create negativity.
Children who assimilate their parents’ emotional negativity, and grow up with high levels of shame, experience a number of consequences. They are more likely to receive a mental health diagnosis and to suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and high self-criticism. Some individuals may also show more hostility, harm themselves by cutting or other self-injurious behavior, and abuse drugs or alcohol.
Shame is strongly associated with addictive behaviors. In fact, shame and addiction coexist in a feedback loop: to dull painful feelings of shame, individuals turn to substance abuse or sexual addiction, which, in turn, increases shame.
Identifying & Treating Shame
If you frequently identify with the feeling of shame and persistently view yourself as lacking, defective, or insurmountably bad, consider therapy. With the help of a trusted therapist you can take the first step of naming that awful feeling you live with: shame. As Brene Brown says, shame thrives in darkness and secrecy. The more you can gain awareness of your shame-based feelings, and receive compassion and guidance from a trusted professional, the less shame will keep you in its grip.
The fact is, you had to develop high levels of shame in order to survive your childhood. It made absolute sense to blame yourself so you’d be compliant with your parents’ orders and wishes. Yet, the mechanism that helped you to make it in your family, is now hurting you; it’s affecting your quality of life and your wellbeing. Through the process of therapy you can heal the part of you that had to resort to shaming yourself, and you can learn to dis-identify from the emotion of shame.
Katrina Taylor, LMFT-Associate. 512-270-9002
Disclaimer: The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. Reading articles and content on this website does not constitute a therapeutic relationship.