This past week in my group-coaching program, our topic was guilt and shame. Through my years as a therapist in both private and group settings, I know these two emotions are common, destructive, and often confused. My clients are often hesitant to open up about these feelings (because they are ashamed and feel guilty that they are betraying their parents), but once we unpack what’s really going on, a new sense of clarity emerges and a transformation can take place.

I want to break down what these two emotions mean, how they impact your behavior, and how you can move past them to create a more empowered and fulfilling life.

“It’s [shame] the root of dysfunctions in families,” says Jane Middelton-Moz, author of Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise. “After decades of obscurity,” she says, “confused with and overshadowed by guilt—shame is increasingly recognized as a powerful, painful, and potentially dangerous emotion, especially for those who don’t understand its origins or know how to manage it.”

Middleton-Moz is making an impactful statement here. This single emotion—shame—is the root of our family dysfunctions, which then impact how we deal in every other social situation—work, romantic, and otherwise.

Unfortunately, shame has become normalized, and it’s considered highly unusual if we don’t experience some level of shame in our lives. For example, embarrassment and shyness—unless they’re extreme or long lasting—are considered “normal” behaviors. And, of course, we revere humility and consider it socially desirable, yet it, too, can be a form of shame.

Shame vs. Guilt

Often, shame and guilt are lumped into the same category, but they are very different emotions.

Guilt is the feeling of doing something wrong.

Shame is the feeling of being something wrong. In other words, when you feel shame, you essentially feel as though something is inherently wrong with you.

Guilt is often seen as positive, in that it is the response of healthy individuals who realize that they have done something wrong. This can lead to more responsible and positive behavior and actions to “right their wrong.”

Shame, on the other hand, directs individuals into destructive behaviors. Rather than seeing an action you took as wrong, you see yourself as wrong, which if uncorrected, can lead to violent behavior. (We are learning more and more, especially through research that’s been conducted over the past twenty years, that issues such as social phobias, eating disorders, domestic violence, substance abuse, road rage, schoolyard and workplace rampages, and sexual offenses result when shame is not properly handled and becomes part of a person’s self-image or self-worth.)

Obsessive feelings of guilt and feeling “guilty” when you’ve done nothing wrong is actually shame.

The effects of shame are much more damaging than those of guilt.

The Origins of Shame

Marilyn J. Sorensen, Ph.D., author of Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem explains…

“Early in life, individuals develop an internalized view of themselves as adequate or inadequate within the world,” she said. “Children who are continually criticized, severely punished, neglected, abandoned, or in other ways abused or mistreated get the message that they do not ‘fit’ in the world—that they are inadequate, inferior, or unworthy.”

These feelings of inferiority are the root of low self-esteem, which develops into shame.

People who suffer from low self-esteem become highly sensitive to how others view them and live in chronic fear of doing or saying the wrong thing in any given situation. The fear of being rejected or unworthy socially is fueled by the shame-induced fear that something is inherently wrong with them…and the cycle continues.

Moving Past Shame and Guilt

Becoming aware of your shame and guilt is the first step toward resolving it.

I want to challenge you to take some time this weekend to write about your relationship to shame and guilt.

Think about the following: In your own life, did you or do you feel these emotions around shame and guilt? For example, do you feel embarrassed a lot? Do you often feel you are doing the wrong thing? Do you feel that you don’t belong? Do you often wonder, “What’s wrong with me?”

Go back to what it what like growing up—both in and outside the home. Think about school, social life, etc. Even in your young adult life and into adulthood, what were experiences that happened to invoke these emotions? Why?

How often do you say these things about yourself to yourself: “you should be ashamed;” “you’re embarrassing.” When did this voice become internalized? (i.e. when did it move from being the voice of someone else to being how you speak to yourself?)

In order to release yourself from the prison that shame creates, you have to unpack past experiences and understand what happened in your life.

I hope this post inspires you to dig deep and uncover what might be holding you back because YOU matter.

Please share your experiences with shame and guilt below. I’m here to hold space for you, offer advice, and, of course, cheer you on like a wild maniac!


Love Love Love

Terri Cole is a licensed psychotherapist, transformation coach, and an expert at turning fear into freedom. Sign up for Terri’s weekly Tune Up Tips and follow her on Twitter.

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