Is It Guilt or Shame?

Child punishmentI started this column about guilt—why it stalks me. Why, no matter how hard I try to be a good girl, I can’t get rid of the knot in my stomach that says I’ve been busted, just like I was with a bottle of vodka at band camp in high school. However, upon doing a little research on this topic, I don’t think guilt is so much my problem as shame.

They are related but different.

In her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection,” shame expert Brené Brown explains:

The difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences between “I am bad” [shame] and “I did something bad” [guilt]. Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors. We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against the kind of person we want to be. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful. When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends to others, or change a behavior that we don’t feel good about, guilt is most often the motivator. Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its effect is often positive while shame is often destructive.

We often think of shame as something experienced by victims of child abuse or some other trauma. However, Brown says that it is something we all experience. You don’t need hypnosis to bring painful memories into focus. Shame hangs out in familiar places like parenting, body image, money and work, health, sex, aging, and religion.

Boy does it ever.

This last past weekend, I felt intense shame as a mother.

I wanted to watch the paddle board races a few blocks from our house on Saturday morning since I’ve just taken up the sport. So I woke up my daughter a little after 9 and said we were going.

The tantrum that followed was bloody ugly. As I sat stunned, I realized then why I haven’t pursued anything like this—any activity that would require them to move quickly out of bed on the weekend–in the last, oh, eight years. It’s not worth fighting the tantrum.

It became a pattern when I was depressed.

I was trying so hard not to cry in front of them—and to carry out the very basic mom responsibilities without breaking down–that I would go the path of least resilience. I figured that sobbing in front of the kids did more damage than skipping church or going kayaking—and their whining pushed me over the edge—so they got to hang out on the couch and acquire gold and dark elixir for their villages in Clash of Clans. Now that I’m a little stronger, I’m feeling the shame.

My therapist used to help me sift through my guilt by explaining the difference between a conviction and a condemnation.

Conviction: I want to be a better mom. I want the kids to look back on their childhoods and have a few other memories than watching 12 variations of gangum style on their iPads and learning how to twerk courtesy of Miley Cyrus.

Condemnation: I’m a horrible mom. I’ve messed up terribly for 13 years. I’ve raised rude and obnoxious people that won’t be able to afford a mortgage because they will have so many therapy bills.

What do you do from here?

Brown identifies four elements of shame resistance: “Name it. Talk about it.  Own your story. Tell the story.” People with high levels of shame resilience can recognize what triggers shame for them. They can decode the message we’re all fed that being imperfect means being inadequate. They share their story with people they trust, and they ask for what they need.

My shame story is essentially my depression story, the dark energy that has impacted the most intimate corners of my life: my marriage, my parenting, my work, my body image, and my health. Seven years ago, I began to tell it, and therefore have been liberated from part of its hold. But teasing apart the guilt from the shame is where I struggle. What can I change? Better discipline, asserting house rules, blocking Miley from getting into our home. What do I have to accept? That I have failed, big time, in the last 13 years, but so has every other parent. That imperfection doesn’t mean inadequacy. That all I can do is try my best one moment at a time.

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

Image: avoiceformen.com

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8 thoughts on “Is It Guilt or Shame?

  1. Thank you Therese.
    Some people don’t feel guilty they justify there behavior. Our 20 year old was caught cheating, lying and for forgery instead of saying sorry she accused us of not loving her to the lawyer we had to retain @ 20k. When it was proven without doubt she was the culprit she justified her action & said she went through trauma as a child. She in fact wrote in her journal that she is such a convincing lier she can lie just about any thing and fool all therapist because they profit from quackery. Yes, she can fool some greedy therapist. She clams she does not sleep she suffers from depression. She is now 45 & still lies & manipulates to suit her purpose … The only one she can still fool maybe her husband.

    Don’t you think guilt & shame can help us be helpful tools & be used in a positive way?

  2. Thank you Therese.
    Some people don’t feel guilty they justify there behavior. Our 20 year old was caught cheating, lying and for forgery instead of saying sorry she accused us of not loving her to the lawyer we had to retain @ 20k. When it was proven without doubt she was the culprit she justified her action & said she went through trauma as a child. She in fact wrote in her journal that she is such a convincing lier she can lie just about any thing and fool all therapist because they profit from quackery. Yes, she can fool some greedy therapist. She clams she does not sleep she suffers from depression. She is now 45 & still lies & manipulates to suit her purpose … The only one she can still fool maybe is her husband.

    Don’t you think guilt & shame can helpful tools & be used in a positive way?

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. You do great work for others. I am an Alter grad, a former Alter teacher and a former Alter parent. I am now a guidance counselor. I use your columns regularly. Always so great. Thank you.

  4. I know you’re doing the best you can in your parenting. I’m sure you ask the Lord to help you be a good Mama, as I did. Do we do it perfectly? No one can. When we are fragile, it’s tough to be firm with our kids. It’s hard to keep pushing against their hissy-fits. When I knew I couldn’t handle something, I asked their Dad to take care of it – supporting what I wanted them to do. Perhaps telling them what will happen on the next morning will help. Parenting is tough.

    1. Parenting is the toughest job. All you can do is give it your best and ask God for help. If you are soft or tough your child can resent you. Put you faith in God & don’t judge your self.

  5. I can totally identify with your feelings of inadequacy as a parent. The entire time my children were growing up I felt like a total failure as a mother. I, too, suffer from depression and anxiety and there were many days that I struggled just to function. I had problems being consistent with schedules, helping with homework, etc. (in general, considering myself a “fart in a whirlwind!”) Even though I was able to be a stay at home mom, I was never the “June Cleaver/Betty Crocker” kind who did everything perfectly. I felt like a failure and a “domestic disaster”. I constantly compared my mothering skills with those of other moms I knew and I felt like they were doing a much better job of raising their children. (This was reinforced every Christmas when we received all those yearly “I am a perfect parent, have a perfect life, children, etc”…letters we all get!) If I did something differently than other moms did, I automatically assumed that they were right and I was wrong. My daughter is now 23 and my son is 22 and I couldn’t be more proud of the people they have become. My daughter has struggled through college for five years and has one more year to go to earn her bachelor’s degree and teach special education. (“OMG, YOUR daughter didn’t finish college in three years with a 4.0+ average?!”) She has more “common sense” than anyone I know. She will be a wonderful teacher as she is an incredibly intelligent, perceptive and caring person. As a student she has received many positive comments from her professors and coworkers about what a good teacher she will be. My son is living in an “artsy-fartsy” kind of town, with a job as a cyclist delivering sandwiches for a deli. He is studying welding so that he can pursue a career building custom bicycles. Yes, he has a few tattoos and a piercing or two and no, he doesn’t wear khakis and polo shirts. (“OMG, your son isn’t in an ivy league school studying engineering?!”) He is doing what the rest of us wish we had done, finding what we have a real passion for and doing it instead of wishing we had! He, too, is extremely intelligent and caring and despite having had A.D.D. his entire life, he has his act together in his own way and functions just fine! (No, his clothes aren’t neatly pressed but he has a great life and I wouldn’t change anything about him if I could!) I hope this will help you in some small way to not be so critical of yourself and your abilities as a parent. Although we are all different, we do the best we can at the time and with God’s help, our children will turn out just fine. (And try to always remember…He “knows us best and loves us most!”)

    1. Ameen! You did a great job. It’s not the Ivy school that makes one a better person. It’s the truth & you most certainly have this.

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