Guilt and shame are two different beasts. Both inspire us to feel pretty crappy. Both serve to shape our behavior. But, important difference, guilt inspires us to do better, while shame leaves us feeling hopeless.
Those of us who spend time studying and delineating different emotional states – oh, the fun conversations about qualities of shame! – have noted that guilt and shame work on us differently. Guilt is created from a belief that you have done something wrong or bad. It is behavior driven. Shame hits us deeper; it is a belief that we, our self, is bad or wrong. It is personal. Again, both feel awful. Both make us want to crawl away and hide. But guilt, because it is about DOing something that felt wrong, motivates us to change our behavior. We can do something to avoid future guilt. Shame on the other hand, since it feels like something true about us, is about BEing. There is little we can do about a flaw we feel is deep within us. Shame is the internal voice that says, “if people really knew who you are, they would not like you”. Shame gives us little to bargain with. In this way, it is not very motivating. Shame makes us believe there is a problem within us that cannot be fixed, so our response to shame is often an internal giving up – depression, or a desperate avoidance – rage.
I believe that guilt is useful. It serves as a marker for our own integrity and values. It can guide us. Shame however, I think is an illusion about ourselves. It is a voice from old wounds that we couldn’t fight against, because we were too young to argue or too vulnerable. Shame tells you a lie – that you are ultimately bad and the best you can do is hide it from others. Shame blinds us and separates us from who we really are and who we want to be.
I remember in junior high being taught to respond to people with “I don’t like what you did” rather than “I don’t like you. Now, in junior high I was pretty certain that, in fact, I didn’t like certain people. This is still true as a more evolved adult. But the lesson is a good one for a lot of reasons. Shame will not make us better. Shaming is giving up on each other. Being clear about behavior that doesn’t work for you, that is something people can work with.
Why am I writing about this in Conscious Sexual Self? Because sexuality is an area where shame has been used a lot. And we have internalized it. Every time you think “I am bad for desiring that or “I am not OK for the way my body responds”, you cut yourself off from something important. And shame makes us feel like we don’t have choices, like our sexuality can never feel good and in integrity. But it can. You may feel guilty sometimes about something you did sexually. Ok, use that as guidance. But spare yourself the shame, if you can. The sexual part of you is good, natural, and deserving of a place in your life. We can learn to lessen shame, if we let ourselves.