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Many people question the difference between shame and guilt. Both of them have to do with a sense of doing something wrong, or bad behavior. But what is really the difference?

Merriam-Webster says that guilt is:

"the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty;" "the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously;" "feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy;" or "a feeling of deserving blame for offenses."

Regarding shame, it has this to say: "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety;" "a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute;" or "something that brings censure or reproach."

Man feeling shame
Man feeling shame

In psychotherapy, we simplify the distinction between these do words with the saying "guilt is the feeling when I have done bad, where shame is the feeling that I am bad." Guilt causes suffering but we can usually identify where it came from. Maybe we told a lie or said something mean. We feel guilty about what we did and want to atone for it. Shame is more complex. Shame leads people to believe they are worthless and have no value. Someone living in shame can't always identify where the feeling comes from and so healing that suffering becomes much more difficult.

Developmental trauma

During development, someone who experiences a lot of traumas can develop a sense of shame. This tends to happen to internalizers--those who turn the negative feelings that they are experiencing on themselves. Externalizers on the other hand, then to deal with trauma by acting out. This isn't a black or white situation though. Some people who mostly internalize can also act out and vice versa. It's important when using these descriptions to always remember that people tend to use various coping mechanisms (maladaptive or not) but tend to use some more than others.

Those who are internalizers make sense of the traumas they experience by coming to the conclusion that "there's something wrong with me." While this couldn't be further from the truth, by blaming oneself, the child can make sense of what's happening. Even though this conclusion leaves the child in a state of shame, it can actually be better than accepting the truth that one's parents are abusive and unreliable.

Healing from shame

Healing from shame is a process. Just developing insight into why one feels shame can be enough for someone to start rejecting the shameful feelings as being true. Once someone understands that shame was a coping mechanism, they can stop identifying with it as much. Getting this kind of space around feelings of shame is the first step toward healing.

Once one understands the roots of shame, it can start to be accepted as just a feeling. The feelings don't have to go away in order to heal. Once we can learn to accept them by understanding their beginnings, we can lessen their power over us. We can start to identify states of shame and let them rise and fall naturally without struggling against them. Over time, as the shame states lose their power, we begin to engage in the world differently and see ourselves differently.

If you are experiencing shame, working with a therapist can be important. This type of healing relationship can help one to change their relationship with shame and create a new way of being in the world.

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