Shame vs Guilt: Transcending Shame
Many people use the words shame and guilt interchangeably, but they actually refer to different experiences. Guilt and shame do sometimes go hand in hand; the same experience may give rise to both feelings, but guilt reflects how we feel about ourselves and shame involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else. In other words, shame relates to how we feel about how we have hurt others, while, feelings of guilt relate to how we feel about what we have done — who I am versus what I did.
Reactions to Guilt and Shame
People respond differently to feelings of shame or guilt. Guilt tends to elicit more constructive responses, particularly those that seek to mend the damage done. Guilt is tied to beliefs about what is right and wrong, and how we can right what we have wronged. As a result, guilt is an important tool in maintaining standards of right and wrong in individuals and society as a whole.
Shame on the other hand, emphasizes what is wrong with us as human beings. It leads those who feel shameful to feel poorly about themselves, rather than just about the actions they have taken. This results in introverted behavior — avoiding others, hiding from view, skipping social events. Therefore, shame can be more problematical than guilt, as it is often less constructive than guilt. Shame can lead someone to withdraw from social situations and adopt a subsequent defensive, aggressive, which exacerbates conflict.
People cope with shame in many ways. Following is a list of common behaviors that can arise from those feeling shameful:
- Attacking or striking out at other people. In an attempt to feel better about themselves, people who feel shame will often put others down in an attempt to make themselves feel better. This may produce short-term relief from shame, in the long term, it only strengthens the emotion.
- Seeking power and perfection. People try to overcome their shame by preventing the possibility of future shame. One obvious way to do this is to pursue perfection, which inevitably fail and causes more problems. People coping with shame also seek out power, which makes them feel more valuable.
- Blaming others. We can transcend both guilt and shame by blaming our faults on others. Conversely, we can take the tact of being overly nice. By pleasing people, we are attempting to prove our worth. This only results in covering up our true feelings.
- Withdrawing. By withdrawing from the real world, we can numb ourselves to the feelings of guilt and shame. Again while this may provide temporary relief, the long term effects are often negative, and usually just passes the feelings of guilt and shame to others.
Guilt and Shame in Society
Both guilt and shame are important social factors, and are inextricably tied to social situations. Our ideas what is right and wrong come from social situations, and as a result, they are perfect places for parents, teachers and family to reinforce a positive self-esteem and sense of worth in others.
By exhibiting empathy and caring for others, we indicate that doing something wrong doesn’t necessarily reflect on the person as a whole. By differentiating between the situation and the person involved, it is possible to prevent shame and its negative effects, while still encouraging a sense of right, wrong, and even a healthy dose of guilt.