I have struggled to know what to do with this blog. Should it be an outpouring of my ultimate wisdom?...let's hope not. Or perhaps an opinion column?...No one wants that. Instead, I thought it best to keep it relevant. As I aspire to be the best counselor I can be, I spend significant time reading or conversing with others and drawing principles from them that I feel would benefit everyone. There are definitely topics that most people wrestle with, and as I learn more about these I hope to write about what inspires me and what makes me excited to share with others.
One topic, in particular, is Shame versus Guilt. I feel it might be foolish of me to attempt to clarify this in one blog post, but regardless, I'm giving it a go. To put it simply, guilt is a reaction we feel in response to poor decisions or actions that we have committed. This is a fantastic natural tool because it alerts us that whatever we did was either harmful to ourself or others. It is meant to motivate a correction of that behavior or an attempt to make amends. That's it. End of story.
Obviously, there are complicating scenarios that make resolving wrongful behavior difficult, but dealing with it directly is the solution to resolving guilt. Instead of a person assuming that guilt is the problem, they can instead see it as a saving indicator that correcting behavior is needed. Once a person has found resolution, however that may look, they can forgive themselves of whatever went wrong and move on. Easy, right? Well, perhaps not.
Many of us have a difficult time feeling released from this guilt. We carry it as a burden that then defines who we are and, often, dictates future behaviors. I might suggest that what we are defining as guilt is actually shame. Shame, from how I understand it, is a label or an identity that is not necessarily based on wrongful behavior or poor decision making but rather how one identifies themselves. To simplify the difference a bit more, guilt is "I did something bad" while shame is "I am bad".
To complicate this a bit further, shame is often rooted in the harmful actions of others, not the person experiencing this deep pain. Survivors of abuse, whether that be sexual, physical, verbal, neglect, or otherwise, often identify themselves as unworthy, dirty, unloveable, or just plain bad. It's horribly sad to think that a terrible experience, like abuse, would somehow change a person's value. Yet this is so incredibly prevalent. Shame is the most powerful and, simultaneously, false emotion that an individual can have.
Regardless of fault, when we struggle to see ourselves as valuable and worthwhile or are finding ourselves stuck in a spiral of maladaptive habits and behaviors, it may be time to sort out shame. Like mold, it grows in dark, damp, lonely, and secretive corners. Shine light and truth on shame and it will dry up.
Portland based Counselor sharing latest book reviews and emotional health tips.