While guilt and shame may appear similar, there are important distinctions between them. “Guilt can be feeling bad about something you’ve done, and shame is feeling bad about who you are,” says clinical psychologist Molly Howes, PhD.
Guilt can be productive, she adds. “It can drive people to take constructive and corrective action.”
If we are relatively secure, we feel guilt when it’s appropriate. This feeling enables us to identify our mistakes, take ownership of them, and let them go.
But if we feel too insecure to admit mistakes and take responsibility for them, this insecurity can lead directly to shame — and this feeling can be paralyzing.
“Guilt can be feeling bad about something you’ve done, and shame is feeling bad about who you are.”
Renowned author and researcher Brené Brown, PhD, notes that shame signals “the fear of disconnection.” When we feel shame, we often believe that we’ve done or failed to do something so important that it’s made us unworthy of connecting with others; we don’t belong — and don’t deserve to.
Shame may also signal that we’re placing an excessive value on our performance — a key sign of perfectionism. In her 2021 book, Atlas of the Heart, Brown calls shame “the birthplace of perfectionism.”
“Healthy striving is internally driven,” she explains. “Perfectionism is externally driven by a simple but potentially all-consuming question: What will people think?”
Because shame is so painful, it may be the emotion we’re most likely to avoid. Yet when we run from or bury feelings of shame, we’re likely to act out in other ways — often by aggressively trying to gain power over others or, conversely, by people-pleasing and approval-seeking.
The solution, Brown suggests, is to embrace vulnerability, which can help us develop “shame resilience.”
She identifies these steps:
- Recognize, name, and understand your shame triggers.
- Identify the messages and expectations that stimulate a shame response in you, and ask yourself whether they are realistic and attainable.
- Connect with others to receive and offer empathy.
- Share openly about feelings of shame with people you trust.
This was excerpted from “6 Difficult Emotions and How to Deal With Them” which was published in Experience Life magazine.
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