Guilt vs. Shame
Many people are confused over the terms shame and guilt. It is a good thing to experience guilt; shame however darkens our understanding of ourselves in the world. Guilt can lead to correction and fulfillment in living while shame hits at the very core of who we are. Guilt keeps us on track while shame derails our movement forward and if not dealt with can spiral our lives out of control leading to many mental disorders and harmful behaviors.
Guilt or Shame
Guilt is accepting that you have done something wrong either by an action or lack of acting. It can wake us up to the need to do things differently to lead us to a more fulfilling life. As long as the wrong is accepted for what it is, “a wrong” and not associated as a “who I am” we are free to adjust our actions, correct the wrong and move closer to fulfillment in life. Guilt is real.
Shame on the other hand says “I am flawed”, “there is something wrong with me”, “I am a stupid loser”. Shame identifies the “who I am” to your behaviors, as if you have no choice at all. Shame is condemnation of self not condemnation of actions. Shame is an inner turmoil brought about by stories about ourselves we have heard from others and perceptions from our experiences. It is a lie that grows as we repeatedly hear and believe the lie over and over again.
Just like a cancer shame grows and poisons our soul; Toxic Shame. It intensifies with the painful feelings of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of relationships, happiness or love. Each negative experience is added to the story strengthening the lie and sooner or later we give up trying. Toxic shame provides no way out because deep down we believe the problem is who we are instead of what we are thinking or what we are doing.
Toxic shame takes life away by accepting the feelings of inferiority causing the sufferer to isolate and become angry due to the painful feelings created by hopelessness. Al sorts of maladaptive behaviors develop (addictions, depression, anxiety, phobias…) seeking relief of the pain maladaptive behaviors develop as the individual surrenders control of the will. This causes a loss of self-control a continuous loop of seeking relief, gaining a temporary sense of relief, which creates guilt which only serves to feed the shame, starting the cycle all over again. All because we are accepting and building a lie about “who I am”.
So how do we break the cycle? If the root of the problem is believing a lie can we correct our thinking by feeding it truth? The answer is Yes and No. Yes, the lie must be disputed and relief will only come when that successfully happens. No, if the solution is to bombard the brain with generalized identity defining scripture and positive affirmations. It would be nice if this did work however toxic shame has to be rooted out to identify the lies.
Recovering from Shame
We began our definition of shame describing it as “darkening our understanding of ourselves in our world”. If our minds are darkened than the solution is to let the light shine, by replacing the lies with truth. So we have to recognize the darkness when our thinking goes there. Sometimes the darkness is spoken our loud or in language in our thoughts (self-talk). Some possible words or thought that I am going into shame mode include:
“I sure made a fool out of myself.”
“I am stupid.”
“I don’t deserve to be happy.”
“How could anyone like me?”
“I wish I could just disappear.”
“I feel like they (you) are judging me.”
“I am a loser.”
“God knows everything, how could he really love me?”
“It’s hopeless to even try.”
Once we become aware that our mind is going in shame mode we can recognize and accept that “I am going in shame mode.” Take the thought captive, recognize and accept that it is only a thought and that my thoughts do not define me (confess it). This step alone will greatly reduce the sting of shame on your feelings and emotions.
Sometimes deep rooted shame is the result of trauma. Trauma doesn’t have to be a single incident it can be the result of several experiences which reinforce the shame based thinking. For example you may have not experienced direct sexual abuse but a series of other experiences support a shame based sexuality lie. As the years pass and the lie is not confronted toxic shame develops. This is a common problem for individuals who have lost control of their sexuality; affairs, pornography addiction, sexual identity confusion and legitimate intimacy issues. Deep wounding of this type requires professional counseling to root out and process in truth.
Mark Krynski M.A., L.P.C.
Board Certified Professional Christian Counselor
Katharos Counseling L.L.C.
113 East Hill Street
Keller, Texas 76248