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Shame and Guilt

Shame and guilt are very similar emotions and can often become confused with each other. However, shame and guilt are two very different emotions. Consider this:

Guilt is the bad feeling that you get when you do something wrong. It lets you know this and so it helps you to build relationships and become a better person. When you feel guilt, you can get rid of it by making amends for your perceived wrongdoing. It works something like this: You say or do something that hurts your friend Tiffany. You notice that Tiffany is hurt and it brings you feelings of guilt, knowing that you did this to your friend. These feelings of guilt can motivate you to fix this problem by apologizing, bringing a small gift, doing a kind deed, or otherwise trying to make it up to Tiffany. In this way, guilt can help you.

Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling that you as a person are not good enough. It is not about anything that you may or may not have done, but about who you are. It tells you that you aren’t good enough, that you are inadequate, that you are worthy of contempt. If you have shame, you know that you aren't good enough and that you don't deserve good things to happen to you. You might apologize or do nice things for other people to make up for your perceived shortcomings, but deep inside where it counts, you just know that you aren't good enough and that your family and friends would be better off without you.

How Does Shame Develop

Shame generally starts to develop in childhood. In a best-case scenario, you are raised in a family that is constantly telling you that you are loved, that you are good, and that you are wanted. You are taken care of in a caring fashion. This helps you to build a healthy sense of self-worth and to feel good about yourself.

However, if throughout your childhood, you did not consistently receive love, affection, and affirmation from your caregivers, if you were neglected or abused, you may have built a sense of shame. The sense that there is something wrong with you. I mean, after all, your parents are supposed to love you so what is wrong with you that they don’t love you enough to care for you?

Of course, if your parents or caregivers didn’t take care of you adequately, this wasn’t your fault, but this is how children’s brains tend to work. They need to feel a sense of having some control over their lives and so will take the blame for things that happen to them. This is how toxic shame can develop. It develops slowly over time with repetition. You receive messages from people throughout your life that either tell you that you are loveable and worthwhile, or you receive messages that tell you that you are not.

Signs of Shame

There are several different ways to tell if what you are feeling is shame as opposed to guilt. These are some signs of shame:

1. Isolation and fear of intimacy- If you don’t feel like you are good enough, then it is very hard for you to be vulnerable to others, which makes intimacy very difficult

2. Feelings of inferiority-if you never learned in your family of origin that you are important and that you are worthwhile, then you develop feelings of inferiority

3. Low self-worth- by definition, the same causes a sense of low self-worth.

4. Difficulty facing mistakes and failure. If you lack self-esteem and have low self-worth, it is very difficult to hear any sort of negative feedback. Anything negative will only reinforce those feelings of shame and low self-esteem.

5. Feelings of debilitating guilt. This shows itself in the way you frequently apologize for things that you are not responsible for.

6. Feelings of loneliness. This goes hand in hand with the difficulty with intimacy. Without intimacy, you can’t feel close to others and will feel lonely.

7. Hiding perceived flaws. When you feel inadequate, you feel that you have to hide your flaws from others, so they won’t see how un-worthy you are.

8. Perfectionism & performance anxiety. In order to pump up your low self-esteem, you try to do everything perfectly. When you believe that you can’t do something perfectly, you will just avoid doing it altogether. These beliefs will lead to performance anxiety and procrastination.

9. Destructive and Compulsive behaviors- this might include behaviors such as substance abuse, eating disorders, workaholism, gambling, or other self-destructive behaviors.

10. Lack of healthy boundaries. Difficulty setting boundaries include an inability to say no to others even when you want to.

Closing Thoughts

Toxic shame often comes from a history of abuse. It can change the way you feel about yourself, lower your self-esteem, hurt your relationships, make you insecure, or cause you to second-guess all your decisions. It can be a very disruptive force in your life. If you would like to talk more about this, or if you would like to talk to someone about trauma therapy, please follow the link.


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