Shame and Guilt and the Impact on Our Lives

Shame and Guilt and the Impact on Our Lives

What is the difference between shame and guilt?

Shame and guilt are two very powerful emotions that can affect the way we live our lives and the way we interact with others.  Shame is the feeling of being unworthy, usually coming from a place of negatively judging oneself.  Guilt is similar in that it also involves negative self-judgment.  The difference between shame and guilt is in understanding what the negative thoughts and feelings are focused on.  Guilt involves feeling bad about the things that I have done; shame is centered on feeling bad about who I am.  This is a very important difference because it is much easier to change the things we do than to change who we are.

So what can I do about it?

Let’s say that I lied yesterday to my husband.  If I was feeling guilty about this, then I am thinking that I should not have lied to him because it was wrong to be dishonest.  If I was feeling shame, then I would see myself as a liar and label myself as being that act instead of doing the act.  Another way to see this is to compare it to the way we see dyslexia.  A child suffering from dyslexia indicates that he/she is challenged with this issue; however, calling a child a dyslexic indicates that they are this way and might never be able to change.  Changing the wording can change the way we think about the issue or struggle.  So, saying that I lied instead of calling myself a liar helps me to detach from the action so that it does not have to define who I am.

According to Brené Brown, a research professor that has done extensive studies on worthiness, shame, courage and vulnerability, shame serves no good purpose in our society.  Guilt, on the other hand, can be used as a way of helping children learn right from wrong.  A child feeling guilt might think twice about repeating bad behavior because she sees the behavior as something she can control, instead of the thinking that the behavior controls her (which is what shame can do).  Another key point that Brené Brown discovered from her research is that openly facing and talking about shame takes the power away from the shame.  You see this happen with celebrities when they release embarrassing information about themselves to the public to avoid being blackmailed; when this happens, this embarrassing information loses its power because it is no longer a secret and the celebrity can move forward instead of being kept down by the fear of others finding out.

I have found that the process of identifying guilt versus shame in our lives is the first step in being free of these feelings.  The next step is to learn to reframe the concepts from shame to guilt by understanding that our actions do not have to define who we are.  Just because I told a lie doesn’t mean that I have to be a liar.  Once I start seeing that I do not have to be the things I do, then I can start working on changing my behaviors.  Like I said earlier, it is much easier to change the things we do then to change who we are.

Here is a great video from Brené Brown on shame.


If you are suffering from shame and guilt and are ready to free yourself, contact us at 303-353-9226 or to schedule an appointment now.