When it comes to staying mentally strong we need to be clear on the difference between shame and guilt.
Sometimes, people confuse shame with guilt, or use the two words interchangeably. However, they refer to two different experiences. And they affect us in very different ways. While both experiences can feel uncomfortable, one can be useful for us while the other has the potential to be quite disempowering and even destructive in our lives.
Hit play on the podcast, or keep reading below to explore the difference between shame and guilt. We all experience both feelings, and learning to recognise and deal with each in the best way, is a huge step on the road to mental strength, empathy, and personal empowerment.
The difference between guilt and shame
Guilt is the feeling you get when you’ve done something wrong, or think you’ve done something wrong.
When you feel guilty about what you did, even though it’s an unpleasant emotion, it can be very instructive in that it can help you learn from mistakes and or take steps to make amends for it.
So guilt can be a great motivator for you to move back towards your values, do the right thing and grow in wisdom. Once you learn from it and take appropriate actions, you can then put it behind you.
Shame, however, is a feeling that you are the thing that’s wrong, and it may not be related to a specific behaviour or event at all.
Shame research professor and author Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Shame is this feeling of being convinced that you are unworthy, wrong, horrible, bad, or broken. It offers no clear pathway back to feeling more positive about yourself or taking positive action like guilt does.
They impact our lives differently
Brene Brown’s research shows that guilt can be an adaptive and helpful emotion. It’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling a natural psychological discomfort.
But it seems like shame is not helpful or productive. In fact, it can be debilitating and destructive. Research shows that not only can shame lead to depression and problems with anger, but it can also be the source of destructive, hurtful behaviour towards others too.
Now this is a topic which is multifaceted and muti-layered, and what I love to do in this podcast and blog is give you some really simple, practical ways you can become mentally stronger.
So that’s what I want to do today – give you some pointers on healthy ways to deal with shame and guilt. First though, I want to put a caveat in here. I’d like to take a step back for a moment, and look at why shame affects some of us differently and has different roots. This is worth a brief word because some kinds of shame may need more and different kinds of help and healing as well.
Why shame haunts some of us
As we grew up through our infancy and childhood, we were constantly receiving messages about whether we were loved, ok and accepted, or not loved, ok and accepted in our environment. Our self-esteem was shaped by experiences of being well cared for or neglected, praised or put down, abused or treated with respect.
Children who grew up in abusive, critical or neglectful environments can easily get the message that they are unworthy and unlovable. And they may struggle with ongoing feelings of shame through adulthood.
These shame cycles create low self-esteem and can tip into depression. This is a really painful experience. I know because I lived this for many years.
If this is something you relate to, it’s really important to develop the skills of self compassion and mindfulness so you can start to transform your relationship to these old conditioned patterns and also working with a licensed and skilled therapist can help you find healing, insight and empowerment. With that caveat in mind, here are three pointers for healthy handling of guilt and shame.
Healthy ways to deal with shame and guilt
1.Separate who you are from what you did
We all make mistakes or let ourselves and others down sometimes. We blow our responsibilities, or act selfishly. We have all done things we regret. Moments like these are inevitable from time to time. It doesn’t mean we are ‘bad people’ for committing them. It can be helpful to remind yourself of that fact. Try to have a bit of empathy for yourself.
Remember not to confuse the understanding “I did something wrong”, with “I am a bad person.” For example, “I forgot to call my mother for her birthday” instead of “I am a bad daughter” or “I am a selfish person.”
2. Take the lesson
Once you’ve separated your actions from your identity, you’re letting go of shame and working with guilt. You start to enquire into how you might learn from the experience. You can do this in two steps. First it’s helpful to explore why you acted the way you did.
For example, maybe you didn’t call your mother because you were overwhelmed by juggling work and kids? Or maybe your mum was rude to you last time you called and you were dreading the same? Maybe in other moments where you let someone down, you were just wanting to do something else that was more fun? Were you overcome with anger or just having a bad day when someone caught you in your lowest moment?
Exploring the reasons for your actions helps inform how you can improve things in the future. And once you’ve improved yourself, it’s almost impossible to regret whatever led to it. Ask yourself, what lessons can I learn about myself, how I want to behave and who I want to be going forward?
3. Commit to positive change
Let your guilt become your motivator to do better. Think of it as a wise teacher that tells you what felt wrong in the past so that you might not repeat it in the future. Now that you have insight into what was wrong, make a firm commitment to a positive change. That may include making amends, saying sorry, and/or just a personal commitment to yourself to change your behaviour for the better.
In this way, our guilt, rather than being debilitating or unhelpful, can become a great source of wisdom, motivation, strength, and mental clarity.
Your mental strength practice for the week ahead
Whenever guilt or shame arises, as best you can, try not to spend too much time beating yourself up, putting yourself down or wallowing in shame.
Instead, give yourself a moment to:
- Separate who you are from what you did
- Take the lesson, and
- Commit to positive change
This way, you keep learning, growing, getting mentally stronger, and living in ways that leave yourself and others feeling healthy, happy, and empowered.
If you’d like some more support in becoming mentally stronger, come and check out the coaching and training options I offer. I also have a bunch of free resources including a free 5-day Mental Strength Challenge which you can begin right away to kickstart your mental strength and improve your wellbeing, happiness and resilience.
Or if you’re ready to take your mental strength to the next level and arm yourself with powerful tools that will last a lifetime, join me in Headstrong. It’s my 8-week intensive mental strength program. Headstrong offers the best of everything I’ve learned in over two decades of mental strength training and teaching.
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