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Shame versus Guilt. Are they the same?

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[2]Chantelle K. Dockter,
MA, Licensed Professional Counselor
Associate of CCCOW [3],

Question: What is the difference between “shame” and “guilt”, or are they the same thing?

Answer: When working with my clients, I find that the terms “shame” and “guilt” are generally used interchangeably. They are not the same. It is important to recognize the difference between the two in order to effectively deal with the byproducts that each can bring.

Guilt is like our internal alarm system that is set off when we do something wrong. It is an emotion in response to wrong behavior. For example, if I yell at my friend because I am irritated at something else, I later recognize that I acted in a way that was wrong and feel guilty as a result. The feeling of guilt is uncomfortable, in order to turn us away from the wrong that we are doing. Therefore, guilt can be a healthy thing. Because guilt comes as a result of something we do, we can do something about it, to “fix” it, and the guilty feeling then dissipates. I can sincerely apologize to my friend for yelling at her, reconcile, and move on.

Shame is an entirely different creature. Shame is not just a feeling about what you have done; it is a belief or mindset that something is wrong with you. It goes deeper than feeling bad about your behavior. It is that you believe you are defective, worthless, or a failure to the core of whom you are, not just about what you have done. Using the previous example, I will view myself as a horrible person and undesirable as a result of yelling at my friend. The shame is not “fixed” because it is how I feel about who I am rather than what I have done.

The problem is we often develop a shame-based way of looking at ourselves. Most of us can look at others and recognize that they will mess up at times, but still think they are worthwhile people. However, if we view ourselves through the lens of shame, then no matter how many good or “right” things we do, we will never be acceptable, due to the deep down belief that something is wrong with us.

Take a moment to reflect on your own internal belief system and attempt to determine whether it is guilt or shame that you deal with the most. One can be healthy and productive, the other is quite damaging. In a future article we will take a look at tools that can combat shame.

Written by,

Chantelle K. Dockter,
MA, Licensed Professional Counselor
Associate of CCCOW, www.cccow.org

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