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Shame and Guilt

It is unfortunately common to experience feelings of Shame and Guilt. After all, during childhood and adolescence many children are told, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” when they refuse to share a candy bar, or maybe fight with a peer or sibling.  We are taught early on by our parents, guardians, and other adults what shame feels like, and many children develop to be adults with acute feelings of shame and of guilt. Now, the focus of this particular blog entry is not to give parenting advice- this will come in a later blog. However, let it be briefly mentioned that shaming your children as discipline or punishment is not a healthy way to raise them as they will grow with deep feelings of Shame.

Let us differentiate Shame and Guilt as we explore their relationship.

Shame is defined as an unpleasant emotion due to negative self-evaluation, and many times sometimes self-loathing of various parts of yourself. It is the negative self-evaluation of one’s whole being- one’s self, personality, intelligence, character- that bring about deep feelings of inadequacy and shame of who you are as a person. In feeling shame, people can devalue themselves globally in many ways. Shame is understood in the mind and heart, as “Something is wrong with me.”

Guilt is defined as a negative emotion due to feelings of sadness based on a negative behavior. In guilt, you are negatively evaluating your behavior- not yourself as a person. It is a less global emotion compared to Shame, which is a negative self-evaluation of your being. Guilt is conceptualized in the mind and heart, as “Something wrong with what I did.”

Can people feel both emotions simultaneously? Absolutely.  Trauma studies have shown that many trauma survivors, adults of childhood abuse, children exposed to domestic violence, unhealthy parental disciplines and shaming- all experience acute feelings of guilt and shame on myriad of levels. Beliefs related to Shame (i.e. something is wrong with me), and beliefs related to Guilt (i.e. I shouldn’t have done that, what I did was wrong) can both be experienced at the same time.

Can Shame and Guilt also be experienced consecutively, one leading to the other? Possibly.  Frequent feelings of guilt can also lead to Shame. If a person experiences obsessive thoughts and feelings of guilt regularly for every decision they make, for asserting themselves and their boundaries and saying NO to others- it is arguable that this person has developed or has already had deeper feelings of Shame since they cannot trust themselves to make the right decisions, or feel comfort in their self-value to assert themselves and meet their own needs by saying NO to others.

Guilt within healthy parameters is normal; otherwise one operates in extremes and will be on the polar opposite of anti-social. It is important that people feel and hold themselves responsible for maladaptive behaviors.  However, it is not healthy for anyone to live in their guilt and get in the way of creating their own happiness.  Humans are fallible beings and are prone to err many times in life’s journey. It’s vital to a fulfilling life, that people let go of negative self-evaluation or self loathing, and grow into the individuals they were created to be- not what others have shamed them to be.

Perceptibly, much of the shame people have ingrained today is from childhood. However it was developed, it is most likely “old stuff”.  Once trauma survivors and others begin to assign appropriate accountability of the things they feel shameful for, as well as, maintain a level of compassion for themselves, they pave the way for true healing.

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