How shame and guilt are different,
and 5 ways of overcoming shame
We all experience shame and guilt, and often use these words interchangeably to describe what we are feeling. However there is a profound difference between shame and guilt.
“Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.” – Brené Brown
Healthy guilt can be help us realize we did something wrong, and we can take steps to make up for it and put it behind us. Shame on the other hand is an intensely painful experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
When we have a strong sense of shame, it usually stops feelings of genuine concern and guilt from developing. Our sense of being damaged is so powerful and painful that it crowds out feelings for anyone else. In such cases we often view other people as perfect and as the lucky ones to have the ideal shame-free life we crave. This often results in powerful envy.
Rich or poor, overweight or thin, successful or struggling, we all experience shame from time to time, whether we admit it or not. As a result we become super-sensitive to what feels like criticism, even if it isn’t, and may feel rejected by others. Inside, we feel painful self-contempt and worthlessness. The accumulation of shame can lead to depression and anxiety.
How does shame happen?
From the day we were born we started learning to feel whether we were okay or not okay, accepted or not accepted. Our self-esteem was shaped by our daily experiences of being praised or criticised, lovingly disciplined or punished, taken care of or neglected.
Children who grew up in abusive and neglectful environments get the message that they are undeserving, inadequate, and inferior. In other words, that they should feel ashamed.
A child experiences shame when a parent’s way of giving feedback is more focussed on criticising the child as a person (“You are so clumsy.”) rather than compassionately correcting his or her behaviour (“Spilling milk is an accident. We all cause accidents – we’re human and not always perfect. Lets clean it up together and next time just try to be more careful.”). Destructive criticism for things that are beyond control of a person, like height, weight, skin colour, disability and weaknesses, specially in the case of impressionable children and young adults, may lead to shame.
Traumatic experiences as an adult too can contribute to toxic shame. This could be due to not living upto our own or society’s ideals. Extreme situations like war and bad accidents in which we end up negatively impacting someone else’s life irreversibly can also lead to shame.
5 ways to overcome shame
Anger, withdrawal, blame, control, perfectionism, and people-pleasing are all coping mechanisms that temporarily alleviate the pain of feeling inadequate and unlovable. Here are some ways of dealing with the core of shame and gradually removing it from the root –
1) Revisit your childhood – Shame often starts in early childhood. As children we were incapable of understanding our parents unrealistic expectations, criticisms and hurtful behaviour, even if some of them were well intentioned. We desperately sought out their approval and unconditional love, and when this wasn’t met, it instilled in us a feeling of shame and unworthiness. Realize that it was not your fault, but a result of inexperienced or bad parenting, and/ or your limited understanding as a child.
2) Become aware of your triggers – Start to notice what triggers feelings of shame. Initially this will be hard to do since we often bury our feelings under layers of coping behaviours. Situations and events that trigger a disproportionate negative emotional reaction are our triggers. What makes you feel vulnerable or rejected, and gets you caught in a loop of thoughts?
3) Practice self compassion – Accept that you are feeling shame. We add to our pain by feeling shame about our shame. Talk to yourself and treat yourself with the same kindness and love that you would show to a good friend. Tell yourself that you are a cherished and valuable person until you begin to change your thoughts and feelings and start believing this.
4) Be vulnerable – Shame and vulnerability author and researcher Dr Brene Brown says “The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.”
Getting beyond shame means acknowledging and accepting it, and sharing our experiences with the trusted people in our lives, the ones who know we aren’t perfect and love us anyway. Their empathy will allow us to keep our sense of shame in perspective, and we will better be able to come up with strategies for dealing with it.
Shame is, at its essence, a fear of disconnection. By being vulnerable and reaching out to family and friends, and communities, we make connections that help us accept ourselves and others better. We start to realize that it’s not just us. Other people do things that are as bad or even worse sometimes. We understand that making mistakes is a part of being human.
5) Avoid shame reinforcers – Choose to be in relationships that are emotionally healthy, who are with people that support and love you.
Sometimes our shame leads us to form relationships with people who repeat the dynamics we experienced in childhood. Our spouse or partner and even some friends might be reinforcing our feelings of shame, without us being aware of it. Identify patterns and try to bring these relationships into balance. You could even seek counselling for this. However be prepared to let go of toxic relationships where people refuse to change and continue using your shame to manipulate or hurt you.
Bach Flower Remedies can help us in coping with shame and help us in overcoming it. The remedy Pine helps us get over the feelings of guilt and self blame especially if we feel inclined to take the blame for the wrongdoings of others. If this trait is deeply ingrained then one would need to take Pine for an extended period of time, like a month or two .However if it’s a passing mood or emotion, then just a few doses would suffice. This remedy would help us in seeing things in the right perspective. He/she would apologise, if actually guilty or else he would stop being unduly hard on himself. The self blame would stop.
For a deep sense of shame a combination of Pine for guilt, Crab Apple for self dislike and embarrassment and Larch for low self esteem and feelings of unworthiness and inferiority, would make an effective mix. If these feelings were triggered by a traumatic experience then Star of Bethlehem can be added as well.
The remedy Chestnut Bud helps one to learn from experience and not repeatedly get into relationships with those who reinforce ‘ our feelings of shame’. Walnut protects us from the damaging influence and opinions of others. It also helps one to break away from ‘toxic relationships’. Gentian is a good remedy to help with the depression and doubt.
Olive Tree promotes wellbeing through healing with and learning Bach Flower Remedies. As practitioners of alternative medicine our aim is to enhance wellness and healing by restoring the mind and body harmony.
Our services include Bach Flower Therapy consultation (at our centre in New Delhi, and online worldwide) and a Bach Centre UK certified short distance learning programme which can be taken from any place in India and will empower you to heal your family and friends and also to start a fulfilling career in alternative medicine. We also sell Bach flower essences. To know more call us on 9717146337 or write to us on firstname.lastname@example.org.