The Ugly Twins – Guilt & Shame

Probably two of the most painful culprits in the emotional arsenal are guilt and shame. These two can seriously wreak havoc on us. It wasn’t until I read Brené Brown's work that I fully understand the difference between them AND how to let go of one and positively utilize the other.

Guilt is the feeling we have when we know we’ve done something wrong or hurt another. We feel bad about our actions. Perhaps I yelled at my daughter in an unkind way or I forgot to leave a tip for the waiter. My action results in me feeling guilty.

Guilt can act as a reminder for right or wrong.

It’s like an internal morality indicator, letting you know if something you’ve done goes against your value system. Brené Brown writes, “[Guilt] is an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful. The psychological discomfort, something similar to cognitive dissonance, is what motivates meaningful change.”

Overall, when we experience guilt, it can propel us to make amends and change our behavior and so is seen as a potentially positive force.

Obviously taken to the extreme, guilt can be harmful and is especially destructive if we attempt to “guilt” another person, as in making someone feel bad if they don’t do what I want them to do.

Shame, on the other hand, is the internalization of wrongdoing with the interpretation not that my actions were wrong (that’s guilt) but that I’m a bad person because I’ve done this – (yelling, stiffing the waiter.) Then the berating, negative self-talk ensues. “How could I have done that? I’m so stupid, bad, a terrible mother…”

According to Brown, “…shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better…” Shame harms us in that moment and her research indicates that, “shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying.”

Shame is the voice of “I’m not good enough. I’m not lovable.”

It is who we become when we feel not enough. It is the choices we make to escape, check out, hurt ourselves or hurt others.

Because we’ve all been shamed in our lives and believed it, we now walk around feeling less than, feeling flawed, feeling like we are works in progress instead of wholly loved, talented, incredible beings.

As Brown notes, “Shame is so painful for children because it is inextricably linked to the fear of being unlovable. For young children who are still dependent on their parents for survival- for food, shelter and safety- feeling unlovable is a threat to survival. It’s trauma. I’m convinced that the reason most of us revert back to feeling childlike and small when we’re in shame is because our brain stores our early shame experiences as trauma, and when it’s triggered we return to that place.”

Now that we know more about shame and guilt, we can choose to listen to those old stories about who we are or make new ones. In the 25 years I’ve been working on myself, I see more and more clearly how simple it actually is. In fact, it comes down to one concept – are you ready?


That’s it!

All the words of criticism I heard growing up made me think I wasn’t enough and hell, I wasn’t ever going to be enough. But really, whose words were those? Those were the words my father said to himself, my mother said to herself, my stepfather said to himself, and on and on and on. It really was never about me, I just mistakenly thought it was.

Now I know it isn’t.

As one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Robert Holden says, “no amount of self-improvement can make up for a lack of self acceptance.”

So there it is – self acceptance is the shame-buster.

It starts right here, right now by saying to myself, “Shakti, I totally love and accept you. Right now, just as you are. Just as I am.”

Okay, now it’s your turn. Let me know how it goes.

How have you experienced guilt and shame? Share with me by leaving a comment below! 

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