Emotional experiences are seldom neat and easy. They are gritty, multi-faceted, overwhelming, and can come strongly at any given moment like a tidal wave over our subconscious. While self-awareness cannot neutralize the power that our emotions have over us, some simple education can absolutely aid in the understanding of these deep emotional processes. This awareness can decrease the level of oblivious reactivity that we experience.
Let’s start with the basics.
We often identify shame and guilt as two interchangeable emotions when describing how we feel.
“I have so much guilt and shame, I don’t even know where to start.”
“I’m feeling shame and guilt.”
“When I think about what I did, I feel shame and guilt about myself.”
While these narratives feel real to us in the moment, they are an inaccurate portrayal of what we’re experiencing. The reality is that shame and guilt are two completely different emotional processes.
Dr. Brene Brown, who identifies herself as a “shame researcher” and has been studying the dynamics of shame, fear, and vulnerability for over 15 years, makes this clear distinction:
- Guilt: I feel
- Shame: I am
One can see how different these two statements are. Guilt is a healthy, motivating emotion. It enables us to feel remorse, acknowledge our shortcomings, and feel more motivated to change our behavior. The absence of guilt may indicate a type of sociopathy. Without guilt, we may never feel motivated to change our behavior and continue growing into our ideals.
Shame, on the other hand, is a toxic emotion that sends down a spiral of self-defeating thoughts and feelings. It keeps us stagnant, immobilized by lowered self-efficacy and self-worth, and leads to self-destructive core beliefs that we may never question or combat.
Essentially, shame is the internalization of guilt.
A common example to use here would be that of an alcoholic who just recently relapsed after a period of sobriety. During this relapse, he may have been an absent parent, balking on spending quality time with his children due to his prioritization of alcohol. This is a symptom of alcoholism; all else falls to the wayside and King Alcohol becomes the ruler.
A guilt-reaction to his recent relapse would sound like, “I feel awful about not being there for my children. I know I can do better, but I was an absent parent. I feel so guilty that I missed out on the memories of my children growing up, and I can never get those back.”
Guilt doesn’t feel good. It’s incredibly painful. But what is missing from this narrative is shame.
Shame would sound more like, “I’m a bad parent. I don’t deserve to have my children’s unconditional love. I’m not good enough for parenthood. I don’t know why my spouse is still with me, she can do better. My relapse is a reflection of who I am as a person.”
The differences in the narrative are staggering.
I am a firm believer that we cannot shame ourselves into growth. Often, we tell ourselves to “try harder, do better, push more” in order to beat ourselves into a state of growth. I have found this to be simply ineffective, both personally and professionally. When I shame myself, I develop core beliefs that I am unworthy, undeserving, not good enough, or incapable.
I also subscribe to the notion that “we accept the love we deserve,” as Stephen Chbosky, author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, states. This means that if, at my core, I don’t believe I am worthy of love, I will push away or sabotage anyone that gets too close.
It also means that I will construct real-life situations that validate my core beliefs. If I truly believe that I am undeserving of happiness, I will inadvertently seek out validation to support that belief. That is how the human brain words. We seek control, we seek validation, and we will subconsciously manifest any and all evidence to support our claim.
How can we identify if we are feeling guilt or shame?
Simple. Dig deeper into your self-talk, into your narrative.
If you start to deconstruct your feelings, what are the thoughts that are going along with them? Are you telling yourself, explicitly or implicitly, that you are a bad person, that you are undeserving, and that you are unworthy? (Shame). Or are you feeling remorse and discomfort due to acting out of your value system? (Guilt). Are you telling yourself that you are inherently a certain way (sounds like an “I am” statement – shame), or are you telling yourself that you acted or behaved in a certain way? (Guilt).
Once you’ve identified what you’re feeling, your job is not to try not to feel it. Quite contrastingly, your job is to lean into the discomfort of feeling and allow yourself to be present with it.
We cannot heal from our pain until we have appropriately and effectively dealt with it. While it is typically human nature to avoid pain, emotional healing and growth can only happen when we feel the entirety of what we have been trying to suppress.
Feel the guilt. Feel the shame. Identify which one it is.
Remember, a key component of shame, according to Dr. Brown, is that it tells us not to talk about it. Her research found, however, that the absolute only way to combat and work through shame is to talk about it. That means that this process will be incredibly uncomfortable and often quite painful. But it is not only doable, it is necessary for emotional growth and healing.
While this whole process may sound easy, it is far more difficult than one would expect due to years of learnt behavior which we have internalized to be our truth. What this means is that we will have to first unlearn the old behavior (suppressing or avoiding our emotions), in order to make room for the new behavior (identifying, feeling, and accepting our emotions).
Hannah Rose, MS, NCC, ACRPS, LCPC is a therapist, writer, and public speaker. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Goucher College in 2012 and continued her studies at Johns Hopkins University, where she received her Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in 2015.