Is It Guilt or Shame?

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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.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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