September 21, 2011

Shame vs. Guilt

Recently, I wrote about how we each take on ways of being, which become a way of engaging, showing up, or behaving in the world and relationships. Two very specific ways of being I’d like to talk about today are “the guilty one” and “the shameful one”.

“Shame is the feeling of humiliating disgrace of having been violated. Shame tells you that you are bad.” (from Shelter from the Storm)

It becomes very difficult to correct for shame, because it is rooted in a negative belief. For example, “I am unlovable, because [fill in the blank – we all have different experiences that can lead us to this false belief].” Shame is, essentially, the belief that you are bad. It becomes a deep rooted way of being that very much impacts our view of ourselves.

Additionally, I see shame as being born out of taking responsibility for something you have “no cause” in. In other words, shame is feeling bad because someone falls down; you feel responsible even though you didn’t trip them.

I think of it like a little equation: No Cause + Taking Responsibility = False Guilt/Shame

Feeling shame – or taking responsibility for abuse or something you did not cause – is a defense mechanism. By blaming ourselves, we are able deal with the fact that someone we trusted and adored is also capable of harming us. We long to protect the image and idea of the other person, and so blaming ourselves for something we did not cause is easier. However, if we continue to shame and judge ourselves we are guaranteeing that our lives will be mired in self-abuse, lack of joy, distrust, and lack of freedom.

Now, if your way of being is “the shameful one,” then you tend towards reinforcing the false beliefs that lead you to feel shame. As with any false belief, we will find the evidence to support our way of being. We will adopt the shameful message that we are worthless and, no surprise, we will interpret situations or, worse, find abusive people to help reinforce this attitude. If you’d like to learn a bit about how to break out of these patterns of thought, check out this post.

“Guilt is the feeling that you did something wrong.” (from Shelter from the Storm)

Guilt is related to you being “at cause” for what happened. Guilt is tripping someone and then feeling bad about it. You can correct an action or behavior that leads to guilt. For example, you can apologize for tripping the person.

The equation goes like this: At Cause + Responsibility = Guilt

Guilt is a tricky beast. In its best form, it spurs us on to transform and change our behavior. In its worst, it can be used as way to avoid facing reality. One of the payoffs of feeling guilty – of taking responsibility for abuse or unpleasant things that happen – is that we don’t have to face the fact that we were powerless.

As a quick aside, unless you move the guilt/blame from yourself to the abuser or person who harmed you in some way, you have nothing to forgive them for – they’ve done nothing wrong if you are to blame.

Finally, when we look back at experiences, and say things like, “I should’ve known better…”, we are using “retrospective thinking.” We judge ourselves as guilty, because we are taking into account everything we’ve learned and experienced since that time to judge your capacity to handle the past experience. This is a huge error. How can you expect the 10 year old you to have understood, had the insights that the 30 year old you has? It’s very important to remember to evaluate your capacity to handle or respond to a situation based on the knowledge, experience, life learning you had at the time and not from your matured perspective of today.

If you’re way of being is “the guilty one,” then you are constantly looking to reinforce the false beliefs that lead you to feel guilt or blame yourself. In any situation, you make yourself responsible for all that has occurred and fail to see the behaviors and choices of others that play a role in causing discord, upset, or breakdowns. More importantly, those around you very quickly learn that this is the role you will play, and so there is little incentive for them to evaluate their own behavior or make any corrections. By being the guilty one, you are essentially letting those around you off the hook and bearing the burden of responsibility on your shoulders alone. While there may be times when you truly are the only one at fault, if you have a deeply engrained belief that you are at fault all the time, you won’t be able to recognize when this isn’t the case. 

Now, let me be clear, I’m not saying we should never feel guilt or shame! Each of them has their proper place and exist, in part, to spur us on to better ourselves and to hold others around us accountable. I do want there to be a distinction though between feeling guilt or shame when the situation calls for it and defining oneself as the guilty one or shameful one. The former brings about transformation, the latter only causes us to stay stuck in patterns of thought and behavior that keep us from living fulfilling, authentic lives.

What are some of the words or phrases you use to shame/judge yourself?
How are you using retrospective thinking to judge yourself or make yourself guilty?

If you’d like to learn more about how I work with clients to challenge shame and guilt messages, just schedule a 30 minute FREE Discovery Session.

Special Offer: Receive 6 sessions for the price of 3!


  1. please make the text darker. way too difficult to read. will come back when it's easier to read. esp the menu on the right. the text is light blue? and almost the same as teh background. can you just make the text black so that it's readable?

  2. @Bebold: thanks for your feedback. I will take it into consideration. If you'd like a pdf copy of any of my blogs, I'd be happy to send them to you. You can email me at anytime and just include the title of the blog that you'd like a copy of. Take care!


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