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The Distinction Part II

Tree & light

Photo By E. Rachel Thompson

When it came to my own journey, understanding the difference between shame and guilt was vital to the start of my healing. While there are many possible answers and different scenarios for both shame and guilt, this description was crucial in turning the light on for me and sparked the healing process which allowed  me to get a better understanding of who I was. Insight on how these emotions played a crucial role, also helped me unblock some of the past difficulties which began in childhood and plagued me well into adulthood.

In an article in Psychology Today from May 30, 2013, Dr. Joseph Burgo states it this way: “shame reflects how we feel about ourselves and guilt involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else.” Perhaps using this example will add clarity to the distinction.  Let’s say you just finished excessively yelling at someone. Guilt might suggest to us that the other person didn’t deserve our unrestrained response and now we feel badly about our actions. These guilty feelings will help us remember next time to exude a bit more self-control. Shame, on the other hand, tells us that we yelled at them because we are a bad person. We are rotten and can’t help ourselves and there is nothing we can do to change that. Shame exacerbates the problem because we now think even more poorly about ourselves. We perpetuate that idea that we are bad and continue a negative spiral that many times is worse than the original deed which was committed. Guilt, however, can actually help us change future behavior. Although we don’t enjoy feeling guilty, it can act as a social conscience and create boundaries which ultimately define a sense of right and wrong or good an evil.

The reason so many people confuse the difference between the two is because we process them physically and emotionally in similar ways. For me, I get a “butterflies” in my stomach and my reaction is to want to go to sleep (definitely a flight not fight response). The way I have learned to distinguish those feelings – and how I also work with my clients to do the same – is to deal with it as a mental process. When I want to beat myself up, I tell myself that it was a bad choice; not because of some intrinsic and underlying evil. We should remind ourselves that we are trying to do our best and that we didn’t plot or conspire to bring harm but unfortunately our choice didn’t bring the result we wanted. It takes practice – especially for those who have had low self-esteem most of their lives. It is similar to working on a math problem and missing a step that resulted in the wrong answer. We simply made a mistake; now focus on what steps can be taken in the future that will help us not make the same mistake.

Throughout my journey, I was not only aware of how shame was showing up in my life but also observed it in others as well. I didn’t do this to shove it in anyone’s face but rather to see if it was causing the same effects on others. Thankfully, this technique helped spark a new direction in my life and inspired me to write a book and opened up a whole new passion in my life. It has allowed me to help others overcome shame in their lives and inspired me to meld this into a whole new career.

Shame can be extremely difficult for many to overcome and the best way to defeat it is to see it in ourselves and understand how these negative beliefs that we have come to believe who we are, have created negative choices in our lives. If you want to find out more, please check out my book, “Shame On Me – Healing a Life of Shame-Based Thinking. Although I’ll cover more in future posts, perhaps you may not want to wait. Understanding shame is vital but it is even more crucial that we learn to heal.

My book can be found on the Amazon US site (click on the link) or in the US, you can purchase it from my website at As always I want to thank E. Rachel Thompson for the beautiful photo and I look forward to your comments.


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