Shame Versus Guilt

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” This quote by Brene Brown illustrates how shame fuels inaction and fear while extinguishing the opportunity for growth whereas guilt has the ability to motivate change if we are able to partner with it effectively and compassionately. If shame, however, is detrimental to our wellbeing and development, what function does it serve? How can we combat it and instead transform our guilt and shame into something more useful?

Function of Emotions

All emotions serve a purpose; nevertheless, some emotions can be more beneficial in promoting growth while others can keep us stuck until we can properly process and express them. For example, anger often serves the function of inspiring us to take action and advocate for our values and what we believe in; however, anger is also a secondary emotion that can prevent us from identifying and processing the root cause of our anger which might be pain, sadness, or fear. The function of guilt is useful if we are able to identify a mistake, learn from it, make amends, and commit to doing better going forward. Because we all share a common drive to be accepted due to historically needing to belong to a group in order to increase chances of survival, most emotions we experience – such as guilt – are designed to bring us towards connection or even serve as a learning tool for creating healthy and necessary changes for ourselves and our communities. Regardless, some individuals are more prone to guilt and find themselves feeling overly responsible for things they cannot control. For example, people-pleasers or those with codependent tendencies may feel it is their duty to anticipate and manage the emotions and behaviors of others when really they are only accountable for their own responses. It is imperative that people learn to differentiate between when guilt is effective versus when guilt is not an accurate indicator of when they’ve done something wrong or transgressed their values. Guilt can also easily turn into shame if we dwell in it for too long.

Effects of Shame

Feelings of shame arise when people shift from thinking, “I did something bad” to “I am bad.” Shame encompasses one’s entire being and impacts identity. While guilt can promote prosocial behavior such as asking for forgiveness, building empathy, making wrongs right, engaging in other reparative behaviors, and reinforcing social connectedness, shame often leads to further isolation and stagnation. In fact, early shame-based experiences accompanied by feeling unsafe or unloved as a child can result in trauma that infiltrates one’s self-concept and can continue to impact relational health well into adulthood. Ultimately those who often exist in shame-based thoughts and feelings are more likely to suffer from depression, lack a sense of self-worth, struggle with substance use, and feel rejected or undervalued by others – particularly women and adolescents who are more susceptible to the effects of shame.

Healing from Shame

The antidote for shame is to turn towards connection and allow our vulnerabilities to be witnessed holistically. All of humanity shares a common link: the desire to be seen, understood, and accepted which ensures our communities continue to survive and thrive. If you notice shame showing up for you, try unhooking from those unhelpful thoughts and shifting towards more neutral, reality-based cognitions about your behavior and what you are able to control. Cognitive defusion is an effective technique to help you develop awareness of your thoughts by taking a step back to observe them more objectively rather than feeling emotionally consumed by them or viewing them as absolute truths. If you need support in detaching from shame and building self-compassion, reach out to Embrace Therapy today.

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