What is Shame?

Shame is a distinct experience that can be based in a lifetime of set beliefs about ourselves and how we interact with the world. Shame can keep us mired in behaviors that are unhelpful and take us away from what matters. Building awareness of shame and moving beyond it can make a significant difference in our lives.

What’s the Difference Between Shame and Guilt?

Let’s say you’re 8 years old and you’ve just done something you’re not very proud of – perhaps you’ve taken something from a sibling or said a word that you’re not supposed to say. An adult catches you in the act. A scowl crosses their face and the thought enters your mind that you’re in trouble. You feel a heaviness in your body and wish you never did what you did.

A guilt response will say, I did something wrong or bad. A shame response will say, I am wrong or bad. They’re subtle differences pf language but each can have very real and different implications.

Let’s talk first about guilt. Guilt looks towards what we did with a behavior that can be augmented. I did this thing and can do differently if presented with a similar circumstance in the future. Guilt is adaptable. It can also be motivating. I did this thing and want to do better.

Shame, on the other hand, is held much closer to the self. If I am bad, there is something inherently wrong with me. It’s much harder to change qualities of ourselves that we think are just the way we are. It can lead to worse feelings. If there is something wrong with me, I can’t possibly change or make things better. This is the way I am.

Shame is incredibly common in a world where we are always comparing ourselves to others. We might think something is broken with us or wrong with us based on how we feel, what we think, or what we are doing (or even what we are not doing). This in turn can make us feel worse and lead to more unhelpful patterns.

Where Does Shame Come From?

Some believe shame is an evolutionary response that at some point in history, pushed us to stick to social conventions in order to fit in with the group. When we lived in the times of hunter-gatherers, strength in numbers was often a matter of life or death. Being included meant safety as people who went against the group dynamics could be expelled and left to fend for themselves.

Fast forward to now and what can strengthen and maintain shame. It can depend on your upbringing and your relationship to shame from a young age. The shame voice in your head may not even be your own. There may have been someone in your life who was often critical of you. Perhaps they wanted what they thought was best for you and in their own experience, this meant sticking to a rigid set of rules. They might have thought keeping you safe and motivating you to succeed meant policing your behavior.

Thinking about shame in this way can bring up blame – blaming yourself but also blaming the person who led to current shame. We can’t say for certain where this person or people were coming from (unless this person is you). We can probably say that wherever you are, that there are aspects of shame that are not helpful.

How to Helpfully Respond to Shame

Let’s return to your 8 year old self for a moment. Let’s imagine that your 8 year old self is on a soccer team with a coach who really wants to win. This coach winces when you kick the ball out of bounds, throws his hands up when you miss an easy goal, and runs out on the field to yell in your face when the other team scores.

If you’re willing, try to really see it. Smell the grass. Hear the yelling. What’s going on for you as you imagine this scenario? How are you feeling about the coach? How about yourself?

Now let’s look across the field to the other team’s coach. He also wants to win but has a different approach. He offers advice when a nervous player throws the ball in from out of bounds. When his goalie misses a save, he trots out onto the field and offers words of encouragement. He high fives a player coming off the field for his effort.

Win or lose, which coach would you want to play for? Which one would motivate you out of a sense of security rather than fear?

We can respond the same way to ourselves and choose which team to play for. If it’s between kindness and encouragement or anger and shame, who do you choose? It can take work and time, especially if your shame voice is loud but it is possible with practice. Paul Gilbert, the creator of Compassion Focused Therapy, argues that cultivating a sense of kindness towards ourselves is necessary to live a life of vitality. By being willing to forgive ourselves and to treat ourselves the same way we might treat a struggling friend, we expand our focus and see the wealth of opportunities that are present in any given moment.

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