Shame and Guilt

Shame and Guilt

Shame is one of the most difficult feelings we can experience; it goes to the core of your notion of self. Talking about something that you experience as shameful makes you feel intensely vulnerable and exposed. Chronic feelings of shame are often highly correlated with depression, addiction, eating disorders, anger and suicidality.

Shame and guilt are often used synonymously but have different drivers. Guilt is more focused on your behaviour whereas shame is focused on your sense of self. An individual who feels guilty can consciously say “what I did was bad, but I am not bad”. Individuals who experience shame on the other hand feel bad, small, worthless, inferior and exposed to others. You can apologise for getting something wrong but it’s infinitely harder to come to terms with having a sense of somehow not being good enough.

While guilt is largely in the conscious realm, shame often is unconscious and experienced as intensely intolerable feelings. There may be an element of conscious awareness of shame such as physiological reactions (blushing, sweating, racing heart) but often shame gets split off through dissociation. As the shame goes deeper and deeper underground, over a long period of time individuals may often go the extreme of not feeling any shame whatsoever, instead displaying narcissistic, arrogant or boastfully proud behaviour.

Guilt entails an appraisal that one has done something wrong in relation to another person. It implies that the guilty person has an awareness of having contributed to an outcome that is perceived to be wrong. Guilt can be viewed as an empathic response that helps to regulate our relationships with others; the focus of it is interpersonal. Shame on the other hand often has more to do with our relationship with our self. It is not necessarily connected to other people but more about how we look at ourselves; it tends to be intrapersonal.

Shame and guilt lead to different responses. Feelings of shame tend to lead to a wish to hide away and to cover up that part of us which is thought of deeply undesirable. Guilt on the other hand can lead to restorative action; a wish to make amends and to repair.

As social creatures, we are dependent on other people for love and care to develop a positive sense of self. Children who can see delight and joy reflected in their primary care-taker’s interactions with them will learn to think of themselves as being valuable and worthy. However, if the reflection is one of disappointment, anger or even disgust, the child will develop a very strong sense of shame. A paradox develops where the need to be positively affirmed and to be seen increases the risk of further exposure to shameful feelings.

The dilemma of wishing to be seen and to express one’s self but also needing to hide the self is often played out in the realm of social media. Posting on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram offers the potential for positive reflection and mirroring (being ‘liked’) but can also lead to a profound feeling of shame when the wished for responses are not forthcoming. Shame is hidden away behind carefully edited profile pictures or a relentlessly positive narrative about one’s life experiences.

In therapy, shame is widely present. Many clients’ anxieties and depression are based in shameful feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. These feelings can often be further highlighted in the perceived power imbalance between the ‘all knowing’ therapist and the ‘needing and helpless’ client. Clients are asked to reveal themselves while the therapist’s narrative remains hidden. Addressing shame needs deep understanding, gentleness, compassion and empathy. And above all it requires time and a trusting relationship where the intense emotions correlated to shame can be explored and understood.