Guilt Or Shame :: How To Know The Difference

People often confuse guilt with shame. They are complex states, and as a therapist who works with both men and women, shame seems particularly hard for men to feel vulnerable enough to identify. And women cover shame in some interesting ways as well. So what are the differences between the two? Guilt is an experience that we have related to something we may have done. “I feel really lousy about my behavior last night, and I’d like to make it better with us.” When we experience guilt, we come to terms with a behavior or problem and work to correct it. Some people don’t actually experience guilt for many reasons, but we can save that for another post.

Shame is complicated and the road to recovery is not so easy. Shame also goes hand in hand with secrecy and sometimes even isolation and despair. People can feel very alone with their shame. Shame reactions, when unmanageable, can even drive some to suicide. Many deal with shame by punishing themselves. Often an individual may have identified with the voices of important others in their development—a parent who projects, or individuals who have been bullied, scapegoated or shamed by others. Some people are sensitive and will “carry” the shame of the family. Therapists see this often. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t belong to you and it is not your burden to carry. You may have learned this to protect others. The feeling of being “not enough” or “not worthy” leads many to compensate by doing too much or perfectionism—this over-compensation leads to an eventual crash that often brings many into counseling or psychotherapy for the first time. They simply cannot continue the pace and the facade.

So while you may not be able to identify that shame is driving your life, you may be able to now observe some of the ways that shame may show up for you. If you’re covering shame, you are not living your potential or leading an authentic, real existence. Finding a good therapist or mental health professional to help you look at how shame may be impacting your life is a wonderful gift to yourself. You do not need to suffer and you deserve to feel that “you are worthy” or that “you are enough.” Release the shame so that you can lead a life of authenticity, dignity and feeling “deserving.” A good therapist can provide a safe place to drop your layers of shame and this “shadow” aspect of yourself so that you can heal. Traditional talk therapy can help so can EMDR or Somatic Experiencing.