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Guilt VS Shame & How to Begin Building Resilience

Updated: Mar 3, 2019

“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially; secrecy, silence and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy it can’t survive”- Brene Brown

“There is something wrong with me, I must be crazy”. This is such a common sentiment in

therapy, that I’ve made entire groups around this topic. We are so good at hiding and isolating our mental health symptoms, that we go to therapy thinking we are the only ones experiencing them. What some clients are surprised to find out, is that their symptoms (anxiety, panic attacks, depression, intense anger) are normal reactions to abnormal, or emotionally intense situations, and they are way more common than we think. “Does anybody know the difference between shame and guilt?” I ask my morning dual diagnosis groups frequently. It is rare that a group (of grown adults mind you) knows the difference. I didn’t know the difference a year ago, and I’m a therapist. What is that nonsense. It’s not something we talk about in our society. It’s actually much better for our mental health if we speak our shame, but we stay silent. Shame likes it that way. Shame likes to isolate you. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, bullying, violence, aggression, eating disorders, anxiety and more, per Brene Brown; and I tend to believe that. Here’s why. So, what exactly is shame? In Brene Brown’s blog, she says shame occurs when we find ourselves “less than worthy” in some aspect of our lives. We are flawed, and therefore we believe we are not worthy. Somewhere in the deep recesses of our past, we have experiences, memories, and conversations, that have told us we are not good enough, and not worthy of connection with others. A coach who benched us when the game got close might have sent the message “You can’t be relied upon, you’re an eff up”. An experience with a parent who berated us when we got a ‘B’ morphed into the message “You’ll never live up to expectations”. A rough breakup might have told you “You’re unlovable”. An emotional cutoff tells you “You’re unforgivable”. Basically, shame boils down to the sentiment “There’s something wrong with you.” Except that we internalize shame, so we hear it as “There is something wrong with me.” It’s isolating. Shame makes you feel like you are alone in the struggle. Well, no wonder we feel depressed. Or anxious. Or angry. Or irritable. Or nothing.


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Another, not so fun fact- shame mimics trauma symptoms in the body. Think about it. If you do a little self-exploration, you will find that the physical symptoms of shame (sweaty palms, warm stomach twisted in knots, tunnel vision, intense need to leave the situation, etc) are akin to how we would react if we were experiencing, say a traumatic event. Shame=trauma. Guilt, conversely, is correlated with healing and stronger connection to others. It can be adaptive, says Brown, and teach us how to make repair with others following a boundary violation. Say, for example, you were so hungry at work, you ended up grabbing and eating a co-worker’s sandwich by mistake. Shame would say “you are such an ass, you ate Billy’s lunch. If he asks, deny it. But still know you are a piece of shit”. Guilt might say “Whoops, my mistake! I should apologize to Billy and run by Subway and get him a sandwich.” Guilt repairs and connects. Shame isolates.

Check out the graph below to see how the guilt and shame measures up.

Guilt Vs. Shame Explanation Table

(Inspired by material from Brene Brown’s Ted Talks and audible lectures)

So, how do we being to build resilience? Well, there are many ways, but today we’ll look at three:

  1. Recognize your shame triggers. Where do you feel shame in your body? Flushed face, stomach doing flips, racing thoughts? Yea. Me too. If you could, touch, taste, or smell shame, what would that be like? The more we can recognize these triggers, the more familiar we become with them. Familiarity decreases the fear of the unknown. The more we know, the better equipped we become to address the shame.

  2. Become aware of “unwanted identities”. Basically, unwanted identities are the current undesirable characteristics we have that don’t match our vision of our authentic self (example: I say I value family, but spend more time at work. My unwanted identity is “worker bee” because I feel truly that I am a “family girl” and that creates a disconnect between my actions and my authentic self). Again, the more aware we can become of these “unwanted identities” the better we equip ourselves to practice #3 (practice critical awareness).

  3. Practice Critical Awareness- When shame is terrorizing us, we feel like we are the only ones experiencing it. We feel that we are crazy, that something is wrong with us. But you are not the only one, you are not alone. To be able to free ourselves of this shame experience, we must continue to become more aware of ourselves, to allow us to come up for air- to experience moments of clarity and connectedness. Ask yourself questions like “am I doing this because others want me to or because my authentic self desires it?” or “how realistic are my expectations I am putting on myself” or even “Can I be all of this at once, or should I adapt my expectations?”

In short. Do things that bring clarity, awareness and connection. When shame has you feeling like you should isolate, do the opposite! Call up a friend, leash up that puppy dog for a walk, snuggle with your significant others or kiddos. When shame tells you to hide, know that you are not crazy, and seek connection. You are worthy, despite what shame will tell you. You. Are. Worthy. Until next time my friends.

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