The emotions of guilt and shame are often confused and I devoted an entire chapter to these emotions in my first Amazon Best Seller Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not Your Feelings.
While different from each other as we discuss below, both of these feelings are elicited when an action is taken that is viewed as
- violating some value, or
- hurting another person.
The Emotions as Tools Model notes that all emotions are tools which help us understand how we perceive what is happening to us and which can, with practice, be mastered to help us interact with our surroundings in a more adaptive manner.
A quick overview
The message of guilt is that “I have done something wrong.”
The message of shame is that “There is something wrong with me.”
The bigger picture
As a tool, the emotion of guilt informs us that we have violated a standard of behavior. This standard can be internal and based on our own values or an external standard of behavior.
In other words, you feel guilty when you realize you have done something wrong. This is an error of commission.
You might also experience guilt if you failed to take some action you reasonably could have been expected to do. This is an error of omission.
Both of these two cases are included in the message of guilt.
This is what a court is saying when you are found “guilty”of an offense. Because you did something or you were negligent and failed to take action, you will be punished.
As a motivator, the emotion of guilt moves us in the direction of taking responsibility for and taking action to correct the “wrong” that we have done.
In this sense, guilt is an adaptive emotion which facilitates social interaction.
Let’s look at the phrase… “You are making me feel guilty.”.
You might say this if someone is talking to you about something you have done, or something you might not have done, that they might view as inappropriate.
While no one can make you feel anything, the point of what they are saying to you is that you need to take a look at what you did, take personal responsibility for it, do what you need to do to make it right, and learn from your actions so that you do not do it again.
While all emotions are adaptive in that we can learn from them, master them and develop psychologically, shame is an emotion that…
- can lead to destructive outcomes,
- is often unwittingly elicited, and
- should probably be avoided or replaced by other feelings under most circumstances
Shame implies self-repudiation. The message of shame is: “There is something wrong with me.”
We know from history that if an individual violated cultural norms, he (or she) might be publicly shamed, branded, or even excommunicated. The message was that not only was the behavior unacceptable but the individual was tainted.
I will give you two examples of shame.
Many of the young women I worked with in the Department of Corrections-Juvenile Division had committed some heinous crimes. Based on their crimes, they experienced intense shame. They had concluded that, based on their crimes, they were damaged beyond repair. For most of these young women, this was not true. While horrific, their crimes could often be understood in terms of situational conditions which led to the crime. They were still responsible for their actions and were punished for what they did. But, and this is critical, I had to help them realize that while their actions were “monstrous” they were not monsters. I had to help them move past shame or they would not grow psychologically.
A second, and more common example that you might hear in a park, in a restaurant, or, possibly, your own home is a parent saying to their child in reacting to some undesirable behavior, “You are a bad boy (or girl). What is wrong with you?”
While I am not suggesting that if you have ever said this to your child, you done irreparable damage. No, you have not. I even have said it, in anger, once or twice. Well, maybe it just slipped out?
What I am saying is that you should carefully think about what your child is hearing you say. This is not always the same as the words you are using.
As a humorous example, think about the next time you see an acquaintance and ask, “How’s it going?” The intent of your words is usually to acknowledge the other person and maybe, or maybe not, start a conversation. The typical expected response is, “Fine, and you?”
But, let’s suppose the response you get is, “I’m glad you asked.” And they proceed to tell you everything that has happened to them. TMI. They have heard you asking them to fill you in on all the intimate details of their life. Same words on your part but the message they received is very different.
If you react to your child’s inappropriate behavior by focusing on the child, you may be communicating to them that they are somehow damaged. The emotion they may begin to embrace is shame.
If your goal is to eliminate the unwanted behavior, then that needs to be the focus of your interaction with the child.
When someone has done something wrong, guilt is an appropriate and adaptive emotion which can, and does, motivate that person to correct the injustice they have committed.
Shame, on the other hand, is an emotion that is difficult to justify, often hard to overcome if it is deeply embraced, and insidious in its potential effects on the self-image of the person who feels damaged,or irreparably flawed.
I welcome your comments.