Guilt and shame are two of the most difficult and painful emotions to experience. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between guilt and shame. We can feel guilty for a mistake we’ve made that may have hurt or disappointed someone else. Shame affects our entire sense of self: we feel we ARE the mistake.
Guilt is a sense of deep remorse or regret caused by feeling responsible for something you’ve done or not done that may have affected someone else. Guilt can also bring about feelings of shame if it is based on behaviour that’s considered to be dishonest or dishonourable. People who experience guilt can become obsessive about a specific situation that may not be related to anything they’ve done. Chronic guilt can lead to a belief that situations are far worse than they really are, and that the person is to blame for everything. These feelings may come from a sense of unworthiness rooted in past experiences.
Shame makes you avert your eyes. Shame makes you afraid. Shame can eat away at you from the inside out. Feelings of shame can start at a very young age, when a parental figure may have dismissed or mocked your attempts to do something your way. As an adult, this can make you fearful of trying out new things in case you get it wrong and are laughed at.
Shame is linked to having our failings exposed and being judged in the eyes of others. It’s about being seen as a failure, often in social situations where you don’t quite ‘fit in’ and are shunned by peers. Shame can create an inner critic telling you that you’ll never be good enough. Shame can make you feel humiliated and worthless.
Shame loves the shadows. It can keep you trapped, hiding from yourself and others. The antidote to shame is to bring it into the light: to talk about it, to normalise it, and to eventually develop compassion for yourself as a human being who sometimes makes mistakes.