Do you remember the first time you felt guilt? Or how about shame? You may have been caught lying or broken a cherished family heirloom. Or maybe, you were singled out for looking different from your peers. Perhaps you were picked on because of where you lived.
Whatever your experiences with guilt and shame, one thing is certain: you know exactly what I’m talking about. Every human being has felt both guilt and shame throughout their lives.
Two emotions, two feelings
Guilt and shame, although frequently lumped together, are two different emotions. Guilt is behavior-focused, while shame is self-focused. Guilt says, “My actions are bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.”
I like how Jungian theorists refer to shame as the swampland of the soul. No one wants to be stuck in a swamp, and no one wants to feel shame, either.
We feed shame with secrecy, silence, and judgment. And when these forces work together to keep us in the swamp, we can’t grow.
Research has correlated intense feelings of shame to elevated risk for anxiety, depression, suicide, addiction, eating disorders, and even violence. Guilt has the opposite effect.
Could it be that shame is more harmful than guilt? Or is guilt a constructive reaction while shame is destructive?
Why do we feel this way?
Both are natural, visceral reactions to the world around us. And these emotions exist for a reason. To give us critical information about what we are doing and what we should do. The challenge lies in acting upon those feelings.
Guilt and shame are paralyzing. These emotions stifle action and are enemies of courage. And the longer you feel guilt, the more likely you’ll develop debilitating amounts of shame.
When you feel shame, you’re either saying, “I’m not good enough,” or, “Who do you think you are?” And the cruel irony of it all is who’s writing that narrative: YOU!
A toxic solution
Some people turn to toxic positivity to banish guilt and shame. Don’t.
Toxic positivity is defined as “dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy.”
I shouldn’t have to expand on why this isn’t a great approach. Tucking our true feelings away and replacing them with manufactured emotions is never a good solution to our struggles with guilt and shame. But sometimes, we're so afraid of guilt or shame that we falsely exude positivity to the exclusion of all else. This façade stifles authentic living and will only hurt you long-term.
In other cases, we allow others’ beliefs about our guilt or shame to influence how we deal with them. They literally make us feel guilty about being guilty. But, again, this is a counterproductive approach to coping with guilt and shame.
A sustainable solution
Being positive all the time just isn’t realistic or sustainable. Sometimes life beats you down, and guilt and shame play a vital role in putting you in touch with your innermost self when you need it most.
But a conversation about guilt and shame would be incomplete without talking about vulnerability. Because the truth is, vulnerability is the antidote to shame.
Society tells us that vulnerability is weakness. But vulnerability is really complete emotional risk and exposure, which takes courage to embrace.
Guilt and shame prevent us from taking those leaps of faith, being brave, and—ultimately—being vulnerable. But when you cast guilt and shame aside and immerse yourself in vulnerability, incredible growth happens.
Contrary to popular opinion, being vulnerable is fantastic. It gives you the courage to either accept what you can't control or lean into what you can to create transformative change in your life. Vulnerability is a necessary, yet wholly undervalued part of a full human life.
The cultural implications
I need to talk about another side of guilt and shame. Not the side that comes from bad decisions or past traumas, but the part of guilt and shame that’s culturally and religiously normalized for millions of people.
For many of us, guilt and shame are so ingrained that they’re almost normal. Because so often, our cultural or religious upbringings take us to a place of guilt and shame without even recognizing it.
We’ve all heard the saying “Jewish guilt” or Catholic guilt.” But no one religion or culture has a monopoly on guilt and shame. As the youngest daughter of Iranian immigrants, I felt guilt every day. So much so that guilt became an accepted, unavoidable part of my life.
But now I know better.
Now I know that guilt and shame are dangerous emotions that take our power and keep us down when felt too intensely for too long. Now I know that embracing vulnerability is the key to unleashing my shame and fully immersing myself in every moment.
When you spend time reflecting, and the feelings of guilt and shame creep in, will you banish them with vulnerability? As difficult as dealing with these emotions is, you have control over your response.
So, instead of retreating into guilt and shame, why don’t we shift our thinking? Instead of focusing on everything we could have been and should have done, why not celebrate what you've accomplished so far?
Because when guilt and shame write our internal narrative, we have no power. Take your power back. Embrace vulnerability. Be courageous. Banish guilt and shame to the swamp for good.