While similar in some respects, guilt and shame are on opposite sides of the spectrum from one another. Guilt says, “I did something wrong”. Shame responds to the state of being guilty (or the perceived state of being guilty***) with the belief, “I am bad”. Guilt is centralized on a response to an action. Let’s say I stole a pack of gum from a store. Whether I get caught or not, I did something wrong. If I experience guilt as a result of my action that’s a good thing! I have a conscience that recognizes the laws of my community. If I take that guilt and allow it to move toward shame, I will begin to believe I am a bad person for stealing. The guilt has shifted from a judgment of my actions to a condemnation of my very being.
Guilt can bring healing and restoration. If I recognize my infraction, own that I did it, then apologize and ask for forgiveness from those affected by my actions, the guilt need no longer weigh on my conscience. I am free from it. It may be on a police record or kept in the minds of those affected but I can move on, aware that I have the capacity to do something wrong and do all I can not to do it again.
Shame brings condemnation, misery and separation. Shame tells me I am no good, never will be. If I stole that gum and then went past guilt into shame, I will believe there is nothing good about me. I am a thief. I can never be trusted. I can never make this right. I will carry it like a weight until I die or learn to let go of the shame. It will affect my relationships because in the back of my mind is this shaming belief that I am no good. I’ll believe people can’t see me as good, they just see that I am a thief. It might negatively affect my choice of occupation or how well I perform at my job. Sometimes our response to shame is try harder, be better than everyone else in an attempt to prove I’m not that bad. That motive isn’t healthy. It’s also like being on a hamster wheel because we never really know when we’ve done enough. Usually people who employ the approach of attempting to overcome shame through performance implode at some point in their life. We weren’t designed to operate that way for the long haul.
Sometimes we aren’t aware of our shame; we don’t realize we have it. It’s there, though. All people with a conscience likely have at least one shaming message going on in their minds. What’s yours?
***This brings up another topic entirely, another kind of guilt and how it causes shame so I’ll save this explanation for Part 4: The Challenges of Perceived Guilt and Shame.