The difference between guilt and shame(DW# 765)

When we are talking about the conscience and how it guides us towards wise action through remorse, it is helpful to distinguish between guilt and shame.

When we do something wrong, we feel guilty. It is normal and healthy to feel guilt and remorse when we do things that hurt other people or ourselves. This guilt is our internal moral compass that alerts us when we move away from our values and from our sense of right and wrong.

Healthy guilt allows us to see that we can change our behaviours and make amends. And it gives us the motivation to do so. And when we act in accordance with our guilt to make amends, we feel much better about ourselves.

Shame, on the other hand, is different.

While guilt makes us feel bad about our actions, shame makes us feel about ourselves—about who we are. Unlike guilt, shame may not go away when we take actions to repair the hurt that we have caused. And the fear of feeling shame makes us very reluctant to own up to our mistakes and to apologize.

Those of us who have trouble separating our actions from our character, will find it very hard to say sorry. Because we believe that saying "I'm sorry" is equivalent to admitting that we are inadequate, incompetent or bad human beings. It is the difference between recognizing that what I did was bad versus the belief that I am bad. Since it is MUCH easier to change behaviour than to change our beliefs about who we are, guilt is a far better motivator than shame.

Our apologies by definition force us to accept some responsibility for our less-than-stellar actions. They bring us face-to-face with the sides of ourselves we may not want to face. They force us to look the consequences of our actions in the face, and they force us to take responsibility in ways that can be rather uncomfortable.

When we allow guilt to lead the way, it pushes us forward towards making amends. On the other hand, if shame takes charge, it encourages us to step back from accepting responsibility, to save face and to protect ourselves at all costs, often by blaming the other person.

The way out of this conundrum and internal distress is to practice taking corrective action when we first feel the prick of our conscience. Doing so on a regular basis ensures that we clean up our messes as we go through life, maintain our sense of self as good human beings and keep shame firmly under control.

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