Shame and guilt are emotions that we all feel once in a while. It's part of the human experience and both of these emotions are very important indicators of how we are doing with the people around us. They are strong emotions and they usually teach us about what is "right and wrong" in this world. Both emotions are interpersonal emotions; they come up when we are dealing with other people. Most people use them interchangeably but they are actually rather different feelings.
The thing about guilt and shame is that they are feelings that are difficult to gather research on because of how they make us feel. It's very hard to find people who want to openly talk about what they are feeling guilty and ashamed about. They are vulnerable and embarrassing feelings that make us want to retreat, isolate, and hide. However, here is a small overview of the differences between the two emotions and how they affect us.
"Guilt concerns a person's failure of doing" (Potter-Efron, R., & Potter-Efron P., 1989, p. 3-4). It is what we feel when we do something that makes others feel bad. For example, I feel guilty about being late for my appointment or I feel guilty about not sharing my lunch with my friend. Guilt is associated with a behavior. Guilt can come and go rather quickly. It is a feeling that usually tells us that we could have made a better choice. Guilty people notice their transgressions; the actions they took that hurt another person. A guilty person fears punishment for those transgressions.
"Shame concerns a person's failure of being"(Potter-Efron, R., & Potter-Efron P., 1989, p. 3-4). Shame is associated with who we are as people rather than what we do. You feel shame about what you look like, what you do for a living, or who you are. Shame is a feeling that nearly everyone experiences at least once in their life. It tells you that you did something wrong and need to change that. The problem with shame is that it's primary manifestation is a physical one. When we feel ashamed we tend to look down, avoid eye contact, feel small, and want to hide. It's a very powerful feeling that can easily overpower you. An ashamed person does not notice his/her transgressions but instead his/her shortcomings. There is something wrong with them, a role or expectation that they just cannot meet. They also do not fear punish for what they did but instead fear abandonment for who they are.
This upcoming month we will dive into the concept of shame. Join us as we look at the different levels of shame, shame spirals, the factors in our lives that can create shame, and ways to combat it. All of our posts will be based on knowledge we have acquired from Letting Go of Shame: Understanding How Shame Affects Your Life by Ronald Potter-Efron and Patricia Potter-Efron. We have no affiliation or partnership with this book. It's just a good book.
Written by Linda Meier Abdelsayed, LMFT
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