Many people use the terms guilt and shame interchangeably and are not even really sure what makes them different. There are important differences; especially in terms of the impact they can have on you and how you address them. Let’s look at what makes guilt and shame differently.

Guilt: Is an emotion that occurs as an automatic reaction to acting against one’s own morals and values. For example, if Bill values honesty, but he goes home and lies to his wife, he will suddenly feel guilty. Interestingly, the purpose of function of guilt is that it is designed to get you back in alignment with your values, i.e., to be a good person. In our example above, Bill’s guilt will hopefully propel him to get honest with his wife, or simply stop lying to her in the future.

Shame: Is an emotion that occurs in reaction to a perception of self-defectiveness. For instance, Beth might believe there is something bad or wrong with her when a guy didn’t call her for a second date. In many instances shame causes people to hide parts of themselves that they believe are self-defective from others in an effort to avoid humiliation. Most people who do this only allow others to see and interact with the persona they portray, because of the fear that if they were genuine and real, they would be humiliated in front of others.

The primary difference between shame and guilt is that guilt is about behavior, where shame is about the person. The other big difference is that with guilt, you can do something about it. On the other hand, with shame, there is nothing you can do about it. With shame, you are simply flawed or faulty and there is no apparent way out.

Dealing with Shame

There is a reason why our definition of shame above as the word perception in italics. For most people, their shame is simply that, a perception. A big part of the work in therapy is helping people really look at their thinking and beliefs. The task is to begin to examine, analyze, and assess how true or legitimate the shame really is. Often people come to erroneous conclusions or misperceptions about things that fuel negative messages about themselves. Most people need help figuring out their shame and getting some distance from it so they can examine it. Usually what they come to discover is that they are simply human, which does not necessarily justify being ashamed of oneself. Failure to deal with shame can lead people into depression. Feeling flawed with no way out creates a sense of hopelessness and surrender. It is also important to note that for some people guilt can evolve into shame. Having done some bad behaviors morphs into feeling bad about oneself. The work in therapy is often helping people alleviate the shame, so they can address and deal with the original guilt.

Dealing with Guilt

In some instances, guilt is warranted and justified. There are definitely times when people have, and do, act against their values. Remember that this negative emotion is simply designed to help you change your behaviors to get back in line with your values. In the process of reconciling with guilt, there are three steps that often help alleviate and rid the guilty feelings.

  • Change the behavior – stop engaging in whatever you are feeling guilty about
  • Make amends or restitution for past wrongs
  • Work on forgiving yourself – allow yourself to be human, make mistakes, learn from them, and change to be a better person moving forward that you can be proud of.

It is also important to realize that sometimes guilt is not warranted. We work with many people who are prone to taking on responsibilities that are simply not theirs to have. Some people find boundaries getting blurry and need help realizing where they end, and other people begin. For instance, we often hear people say things like, “I feel guilty that I wasn’t there for my friend and didn’t know what they were going through.” In this case, it’s important to ask yourself what value you think you violated that would warrant feeling guilty. If the value is not being psychic, then perhaps the guilt is justified. It’s hard to be there for a friend if they don’t reach out and let you know they need help. In this case, the more appropriate feeling is likely feeling sad and sympathetic for your friend. Sorting these things out can be tough for some people, and this is where therapy can come in handy.

If you are interested in exploring your own guilt and shame, feel free to contact IPC so you can schedule a consultation with one of our psychologists or therapists so we can help discuss treatment options. Please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete a thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.

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