Shame versus guilt

Thursday, November 26, 2020 Permalink

Like many I’ve seen Brene Brown’s famous TED talk, watched her Netflix documentary and read a million other things about her shame research.

Despite this I’ve only just realised I’ve been misconstruing what she means by shame.

When I’ve thought of shame I’ve thought of BEING ASHAMED. Not being shamed by others, but feeling that way ourselves, akin to embarrassment. And I’ve not really thought it applied to me. However, I now recognise when I talk about feeling guilty – by her definition, I’m actually talking about feeling shame.

shame versus guilt

This exact topic was the subject of a post on her site back in 2013. But it only made its way into my muddled mind recently when I listed to an Unlocking Us podcast about shame and accountability.

I’m an auditory thinker so guess things sink in better when I hear them. Or something.

At its most basic, she says:

shame is “I am bad”
guilt is “I did something bad.”

In Deborah-speak guilt is about a response to our behaviour whereas shame is an intrinsic judgement about ourselves.

So it makes sense when she suggests guilt to be a positive – we learn from it and we are motivated by it. Shame—on the other hand—is tucked deep inside and festers. We believe ourselves to be incapable of change.

It won’t surprise regular readers or those who follow me on social media to know I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve talked before (a lot) about self-worth and enough-ness. When I make casual comments about constantly feeling guilty about things I’ve done or not done, I’m not really talking about ‘guilt’. It’s less about the ‘thing’ and more about my own flaws or defects.

As is usually the case my pondering has not brought forth any great revelations. In terms of my own thought processes or the fate of the universe. The more cynical me (who hates labels) wonders why it matters but Brown talks about that as well. She suggests understanding those emotions promote self-awareness… and more importantly, resilience.

I get that guilt motivates us to not repeat that behaviour or rectify our actions / response in some way, but I’m unsure how being aware of feeling shame assists? Perhaps it’s about recognising those thought patterns before they spiral out of control?

Do you think there’s a difference between feeling shame or feeling guilt? Is it important to understand the difference or am I overthinking everything as usual? 

  • Kate W
    November 26, 2020

    Phew! It’s a big topic. As to why we might explore about shame, shame is usually the bedrock under three other significant emotions – anger, anxiety and guilt. It stands to reason, if we explore the shame, those other three things, if present, might also resolve, or at least ease (sorry for that very ‘therapy-style’ comment!).

    • Debbish
      November 26, 2020

      I hadn’t thought of the links with anxiety and anger Kate, more just the difference between guilt and shame and fact I always linked shame with embarrassment.

  • Min Write of the Middle
    November 26, 2020

    I don’t think I’ve heard the Brene Brown TED talk on this subject. I must be living under a rock! I do think there is a HUGE difference between guilt and shame, though they often go together but not always. Having said that though, it is hard for me to come up with examples of when they don’t go together but I know there are some!! Guilt and shame usually go together when you’ve done something that you deem is wrong or bad. Shame might be felt exclusively in the circumstance of when something was done to you beyond your control or a situation beyond your control of which you feel same – eg a family disgrace or something similar. OMG – my poor old menopausal brain is struggling here but hope I make some sense! lol Very interesting topic Deb!

    • Debbish
      November 26, 2020

      If you have Netflix Min you can watch her presentation on it. I’d seen her original TED talk so didn’t glean anything new from the Netflix show and found it a bit repetitive. I’m not a rabid Brene Brown fan but likes that she seems to capture the balance between research and academic theory and relatable experience.

  • Lydia C. Lee
    November 26, 2020

    Shame and guilt are very different. When I feel guilty, I usually know I’ve said the wrong thing to someone and need to apologise (and often I’ll try to weasel out of it by asking another friend if I was rude to X, in the hope they’ll say ‘no, you were fine…’ HA! But I wouldn’t have asked the question if I didn’t know the answer so I end up calling the person to apologise because the guilt eats at me and I need to do the right thing). Guilt I think you feel because you recognise you did the wrong thing.
    Shame is summed up best by Augusten Burroughs in This is How – ‘Shame is a negative emotion given to you by others, and as we all learnt from airports, you should never carry baggage you didn’t pack yourself’. I’m working my way through all the Pocket Change Collective books (great little essays on a range of issues by activists) and in the Queer Conscience one, the author (sorry I forget name) describes very succinctly how even supportive parents can teach kids to feel ashamed of who they are (it’s specifically about being LBGT in the book but applies to eating, ability, crying, weight, appearance or school success – whatever), Once it’s put in us, we hold on to it very tightly and carry it around, quite possibly even recycling it on to our children…
    SO I think it is worthwhile to think about. I think shame is a complete waste of time and energy. Not to mention half the time the destructive battle in your head is completely yours alone and no one even notices whatever the thing that you’re so ashamed of.
    That all said, work on it. And as you know, I’ll be here to pull you up if I see it. Because I don’t let friends talk about themselves that way. Because we’re awesome;)
    Good post. It’s very interesting to think about. Humans are wired up in the weirdest of ways….

    • Debbish
      November 26, 2020

      Your point about guilt is true – it’s something we can usually do something about but shame (I think) comes from not feeling we have control over something, that it’s ‘us’ that’s the problem. That we need fixing and perhaps aren’t able to do it ourselves.

  • leannelc
    November 26, 2020

    I love Brene and her “gifts of imperfection” book was an eye opener for someone like me. I have always struggled with her use of the word “shame” because I associate it with a really negative image and tend to shy away from it. I think for me it’s been more about being kinder to myself and getting rid of that constant need to earn approval by having everything “perfect” – all my ducks in a row etc. It’s prevented me from being brave enough to live life on my own terms – and with turning 60 next year (holy cow!!) I really want to work on that area of my life and finally put it to rest. We’ll both be a WIP by the sound of things!

    • Debbish
      November 26, 2020

      I’m the same Leanne. Shame has always been a bad thing, and I guess under this definition it still is but for me it’s less about how others see me and more how I see myself. I guess I would say ‘ashamed’ of myself, disappointed in myself, frustrated by myself.

  • Laurie
    November 26, 2020

    I was late to jump on the Brene Brown train but once I did, I read everything she wrote I could get my hands on. I think you hit the nail on the head, Deb. Being aware of the difference between shame and guilt not only allows us to realize: “Yes, we have all done things we feel guilty for. It’s normal.” and change our behavior/make atonement for our actions if possible, it allows us to correct our thinking about feeling shame. Guilt serves a positive purpose, shame does not.

    • Debbish
      November 27, 2020

      I like that way of putting it Laurie… ‘to correct our thinking’ and that’s very true.

I'd love to hear your thoughts