One prompts personal growth, the other destroys personal identity. Do you know which is which?
Guilt and shame often get lumped together as similar things but they aren’t. Guilt is a feeling that helps with personal growth and moral understanding while shame is the destruction of personal identity. While it can be difficult to tell these feelings apart there are some identifying traits with each. There are ways to cope with each of these feelings in a healthy manner but first you need to understand what causes them.
Guilt is the identification that some action (or inaction) has had a negative impact on those in the world around us. Guilt is very easy to identify, when we act on the world around us we need only ask one question – “How would I feel if that action was done to me?” Guilt gives us the ultimate moral authority that we wouldn’t like our actions done on ourselves. It’s our internal way of saying we violated our own ethics and morals. It’s the slap on the wrist our brain gives us that tells us we need to grow as a person, that we need to look inwards and determine our own morals and how we should be applying them in the world at large. Guilt is the stick that tells us we need to grow as a person.
Shame on the other hand is one of the most destructive forces on any individual. Shame is also easy to identify and only needs the question; “How am I broken?” There are some variations on this question, how am I unloved, unworthy, unwanted, but these are simply the signposts for our insecurities, they are variations on the theme that there is something fundamentally wrong with us.
Shame is the bridge between our guilt and our fears. Instead of learning from the times we feel guilty we connect it instead to our fear. We don’t look inwards and grow from our guilt instead shame links it to our fears and we run from it, fight it or freeze before it. We let our guilt and fear, connected by shame, work together to destroy the integrity of who we are. We let it destroy a part of our identity until we become torn in two, the person who is normal, loved and wanted, and the person who is broken, who sometimes does bad things or bad things always seem to happen. Shame is an inward force of destruction bent on shattering our self-identity.
When we shame ourselves we aren’t facing our fears so we develop unhealthy social habits. With healthy friendships, healthy relationships, connections to people who care and show us empathy we can build a resistance to self-shame. With the right people we can overcome our own shame quite readily.
I had to define guilt and shame first because out there in the world are these very helpful people who like to assist linking our guilt to our fears, or at least making sure our internal shame isn’t forgotten. There is really only one reason for someone to use shame on another person, quite simply it’s for manipulation and control. Some people learned this skill as kids from parents or peers although most of us have at least some experience with using it. For a majority of us though we have enough empathy to understand what shame does to someone internally and when we use shame it makes us feel guilty, so we don’t do it. For others though it’s a way of maintaining control of the people around them.
I’m going to give two examples, two statements, and for my US friends I’m going to use their favorite topic of the moment, Trump. (I’m Australian so I don’t have a vested interest in your politicians.)
1. “Why do you support Trump, are you aware of some of the derogatory statements he has about women?”
2. “You’re a Trump supporter? I thought you were a friend, not a moronic sexist pig.”
Now the first statement is simply a declaration that Trump has some statements you disagree with and is the other person aware of them. It isn’t a confrontational statement; it isn’t designed to elicit feelings of guilt. It may do so though. The Trump supporter may be aware of Trump’s statements and disagrees with those statements but they believe in Trumps other election details that they still support Trump anyway. Yet the way the first statement is phrased the Trump supporter can at least enter into the conversation as to why he supports Trump without too much concern they are being judged as deficient, unlike the second statement.
This is second statement is designed to manipulate the person into not voting for Trump. If you vote for Trump you are no longer my friend and you are broken as a person, nothing more than a moronic sexist pig. It plays on the link between guilt, supporting someone who is sexist, with a fear of abandonment and a fear of being shown to be an awful person. This completely shuts down any conversation. You have literally told that person they are broken. For those people out their shaming Trump supporters, if you are wondering why they aren’t listening to you, well why would they? I wouldn’t particularly want to talk to someone who makes me feel like I’m broken because my opinions are different.
We all feel guilt and we are all capable of feeling shame. What can we do about it though? Well for guilt look at it. Analyze it. There is nothing wrong with guilt. We are human, we make mistakes and we learn from them. Guilt is simply a tool to tell us maybe we did make a mistake, maybe our actions had negative consequences. When you feel guilt then use it as a reason to grow as a person. Sometimes you may even need to use guilt to change your morals or your point of view, sometimes those feelings of guilt are misplaced, sometimes you have to re-align your morals and ethics to cope with the world around you. That’s OK too; morals and ethics are learnt as much as walking and talking are learnt.
Shame on the other hand needs to be nipped in the bud. Shame can eat away at the person we are. When you start feeling shame, when the question comes in, whether it is internally asked or externally stated, “I am broken” then meet that question head on. Consciously start from the place “I am not broken”. Work out what is the guilt. What action am I feeling guilty about, is this feeling of guilt deserved or misplaced? Sometimes when that shame is given to us externally then that guilt is usually very much misplaced. If guilt isn’t misplaced then learn and grow from guilt. Work out what fear this guilt is linked too. Am I afraid of being abandoned, am I afraid of being seen as less than perfect, am I afraid …, well there are lots of things to be afraid of. Face those fears; deliberately challenge those fears over and over again. Meet shame from both sides. You will still feel shame but you become better at identifying it and resisting it.
Most of all choose the right friends and partners; choose the friends and partners who do not use shame, who offer empathy when you feel shame or fear. It’s our connections to other people which help us resist shame the most. It’s our connections which show us that we are not broken, that we are loved, valued, supported and worthwhile individuals. Being connected to people through empathy allows us to meet shame head on each and every time with the simple self-belief “I AM WHOLE”.
Photo: Getty Images
*A minstrel was a medieval European bard who performed songs whose lyrics told stories of distant places or of existing or imaginary historical events. Although minstrels created their own tales, often they would memorize and embellish the works of others. The Modern Minstrel observes the world around him and shares it with us as lyrical story. This series was inspired by Luke Davis, whose eye for story and ear for lyrical prose are featured here.
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