Shame and guilt are concepts that can be used interchangeably, but are really quite different. The professional community has begun to highlight these differences because of an increased understanding of child abuse, and the complex trauma with which abuse survivors struggle. Guilt is feeling responsible for committing an offense or violating a social norm. Guilt is about the action. Shame is about the self. Shame is a feeling of disgrace, self-loathing, and humiliation. Guilt is something I can address, by making amends, or by fixing a problem I might have caused. Shame is experienced as inextricably linked to my very being, and so no course of action is available to me. If I have a bad day and come home and kick the dog [I don’t have a dog] I will, and should, feel guilty. But if I have a bad day and come home and am convinced that even the dog holds me in contempt, then I’m feeling shame. Guilt is about something I did; shame is about something that was done to me. When parents abuse or neglect their children, the children grow to believe they are unworthy of love and care. If children’s feelings or needs are ignored or ridiculed, the child will grow up with their feelings disconnected, with their needs disavowed, and with their very being esperienced as fundamentally defective. This is sometimes called toxic shame, and is one of the most excruciating of human experiences. One can recover from toxic shame, but it takes great patience, courage, and a committed coach who “gets it”.
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This was very helpful – i tend to struggle with this a lot. I feel guilty so quickly and didn’t realize that I tend to turn it into shame too easily (and therefore feel a lot worse than I need to). This post was really helpful for me understanding the difference. Thank you! Kathryn