Like anyone I’ve felt guilty from time to time. Interestingly I have a long standing history of confusing guilt for shame. When researching for this month’s series article on self-compassion I had an aha moment when I realized guilt was very different to shame. Shame by its very nature tells us that we are something wrong – a very destructive way of thinking and not helpful at all – whilst guilt signals that we’ve done something wrong, which incentivizes us to make amends and put the situation right. Guilt can also guide us to make better choices, serving as a barometer towards correcting our behavior in future.
To tell the difference between guilt and shame ask yourself the following questions, remembering that it is possible to be both guilty and ashamed.
- Am I labeling myself in my head as a direct result of my behavior? (E.g. I’m a failure, I’m horrible, I’m incompetent)
- Do I feel like I’m a horrible person as a direct result of my behavior?
- Do I feel like a failure / incompetent / worthless as a direct result of my behavior?
- Do I feel fatalistic, as if I will always be this way?
- Do I feel a deep sense that I have behaved in the wrong way?
- Do I feel as though I have made a mistake?
- Do I feel as though I have used poor judgment?
- Do I feel that I want to make amends for my behavior?
- Do I feel bad for the person my behavior has effected?
If you answered yes to any of the top four questions you are likely in a state of shame and need to talk through what happened with a trusted and supportive friend who can reassure you that you are not what you may be labeling yourself to be.
As Brene Brown says…
“If you put shame in a Petri dish it needs three things to grow exponentially, secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and you douse it with empathy you create an environment that’s hostile to shame.”
If you answered yes to any of the last five questions you are probably experiencing guilt. Although uncomfortable, feeling guilty can be a very good thing because it gives you the opportunity to make amends for and correct your behavior. Think about what you can do to make things right and then act on it, remembering that some people will not be receptive to an apology but that the most important thing by far is that you have done everything you can to say sorry and rectify your behavior so that it isn’t repeated.
Have you ever felt guilty and did it serve as a motivator to correct your behavior? Can you relate to feeling ashamed and how destructive an emotion it is? I’d love to hear from you so please comment below to gain encouragement, support and insight from our community.