Is What You Are Feeling Shame Or Guilt?

“The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. “I am bad.” “I am a mess.” The focus is on self, not behavior, with the result that we feel alone. Shame is never known to lead us toward positive change.” –Brené Brown

Hard to Talk About

Sometimes after a particularly rough session with my own therapist I will discuss with a close friend the topics covered in the session. There have been multiple occasions where I’ve brought up the word “shame” and my friend will confide that even just me saying the word brings tears to her eyes. How can this one lowly word have so much power over us? That it brings us to tears, quiets are spirit, and kills creativity and pleasure in the process.  Even sitting here right now writing about it is hard, I’ve taken many breaks to look at my phone or do something else on my laptop that has nothing to do with this subject. 

I had never given much thought to the difference between feeling shame and guilt. Shame was more prevalent in my upbringing and the media I was exposed to, but in my first year of grad school it was an assignment to read a research article about the difference between shame and guilt and write a paper on my own experiences with the feelings. Which was also a task in itself as writing this is. Though I found it hard to reflect on the ways in which I felt shame, I was captivated by the research and findings. It all felt so true like I’ve known this my whole life but put into words for me. There was even a specific section on gender, much like Brené Brown’s Ted Talk on shame touches on, noting the differences of what we are made to feel ashamed of depending on our gender. 

Words Matter 

Phrases such as “You should be ashamed of yourself”  and “you’re bad” were common phrases I heard growing up. What were we supposed to be ashamed of? What did feeling ashamed do for us? I’ll tell you what it did… absolutely nothing. It may have stopped you from acting out an anger but what did it tell you about the anger you felt? That it was wrong and unacceptable. So you grow into an adult who can’t show their anger because when you did as a child you were made to feel like a bad person. When in reality there are many ways to express anger in a healthy manner, it’s just no one ever modeled this for you and never explained why your behavior was wrong and that guilt rather than shame would help you grow as a person. 

Shame says you are bad.

Guilt says I did something bad.

One is counterproductive and does nothing to address the behavior or reason behind it.  The other offers us the chance to learn and grow, we’re able to make amends for what we did wrong and move forward with a better understanding of ourselves.

The Way We Talk to Ourselves

Have you ever noticed the dialogue inside your mind and how it makes you feel.  Maybe it’s reminiscent of a scolding parent, maybe it’s very quiet but you can feel the shame welling up inside you.  This occurs when we are doing, not doing, or feeling something that in the past was not acceptable.  

This starts at a very young age with children, they see things as good or bad. Which is very often promoted within our society. It reminds me of a time I was taking care of two young kids and they would play superheroes.  They would “fight” the “bad guy” and I would question them as to why they are bad and maybe they are not all bad. I would ask them if they did this would it make them “bad” or someone who did something wrong. I’ll admit this may have been a little much for them to comprehend and I was probably the only adult in their lives making them think deeply about bad vs good. It’s unproductive to label oneself as bad it does nothing to remediate the wrong doing, if any wrong doing was done. Why is a kid labeled “bad” for doing something they didn’t know was inappropriate or wrong. Children push limits and boundaries in order to understand how far they can go, physically and emotionally. This is normal developmental behavior for children and thus should not label the child as good or bad. 

It’s important to start modeling positive self talk for children, not just to them but to ourselves.  We need to be kinder and more forgiving of ourselves when we do something wrong.  We can only do our best with what we have and once we know more we can do better. This may take more than just a behavior change, this may take some deep work to look at why we feel ashamed, why we feel we are bad.  Discover the difference in how feeling shame does nothing to help us and guilt helps us be a better human.

Ending Thoughts

It’s not easy identifying our whys, sometimes we have to talk about what went on in our childhood several times or more to process all the things we felt and thought. You discover the ways in which you felt unsafe, ashamed to be yourself, and how you built up your fake self to protect you from all the bad feelings.  This is what is done in the therapy room, this is the work we help you do, untangling the emotions in order for us to think and act with clear intention to live a happier healthier life.  Find your peace and pleasure in the world.

Reach out to learn more about trauma therapy.

I would love to discuss this topic more with you, please reach out to me at:

Yours truly,

Natalie Czaplicki, M.S.Ed. & M.Phil.Ed

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