We often use these words interchangeably. And why not? When feelings of guilt and/or shame rise up? In the mind? The gut? Oh. They both feel pretty crappy, don’t they?
The difference between the two are subtle, but vastly important.
Guilt? I did something bad. Shame? I am bad.
It has a lot to do with self-talk and sometimes – a lot of the time – we aren’t even aware of what’s going on in our own minds. That’s why regular meditation is crucial. Or, having a close friend or relative regurgitate your nonsensical brain chatter back to you. When I was deeply grieving the loss of my late husband, my brother Ray scraped me off the side of the road for a drive. Within less than a half an hour he halted my anxious talk this way: “Rita, do you realize how many times you just called yourself stupid?” Really? I’m stupid? Stupid, stupid, stupid. How is this, in any way shape or form, constructive? If I really am stupid, then what’s the point of going on? I’ll never learn anything! I’m too stupid!
How about reframing it this way: I did (or said) something stupid. There’s hope in this. Perhaps I can learn from my mistake?
So, guilt is about others, shame about self. And it is quite possible to feel both over the same event. A few weeks ago, in But Seriously Folks, I related a tale about moderately vandalizing a school when I was eight. While I felt guilt about causing harm to the property, I also felt ashamed that I would behave in this reckless manner. I’d been with friends at the time and the way we handled our punishment – the boys took it on the chin, a girlfriend lied to escape it – made me think about getting caught up in group behaviour. I, of course, still got caught up in group behaviour (fun factor), especially in my teenage years. Slow learner.
Speaking of the teenage years, when the hormones are raging and what you really want to do with that boy you’ve been French kissing is f*@&, but you’re also filled with a sense of shame about f*@&ing, here’s a super-interesting fact. Did you know that there’s an old Latin word that means both shame AND the external genital organs of a human, especially a woman, vulva? Pudenda. Usually used in plural, pudendum. (Origin of “pussy” perhaps. And “pulling the pud”.) No wonder we can be so conflicted about such pleasurable activities. It’s imbedded right into our language and, therefore, our DNA.
Anyway, I’m a fan of author and speaker Brene Brown – Rising Strong, Daring Greatly – and she believes it’s imperative we get sparklingly clear about the differences between guilt and shame. Why? It’s been proven that shame is highly correlated to serious negative behaviours like addiction, violence, aggression, depression, bullying, and eating disorders. Whereas guilt, because of the opportunity for corrective action, is inversely correlated. Guilt leads to healing, accountability. Guilt is empathetic. Shame is, well, selfish.
So, therein lies our solution. Our way back. Empathy is the antidote to what Brown sees as an epidemic of shame. Of “I’m not good enough.” And “Who do you think you are?” Brown, who has studied vulnerability for years and admits to being outrageously frightened of shedding light on her own, says, “Vulnerability is the path.” We must no longer sit in secrecy, silence, judgment. When you see someone struggling? A good response? “Me too.”
In her TED Talk from March 2012 called Listening to shame, Brown points out how we often think we need to wait until we’re bulletproof, or perfect, to pursue – and actually achieve – our various life goals. Well, we’re all human, which means we’re all imperfect, so that day won’t come. The road to success is literally littered with failure.
Change the self-talk. “I’m not stupid. I just do really dumb things sometimes.” Believe it. Embrace it. As I’ve said before, apologize if necessary and/or given the opportunity. And keep on keeping on.