I grew up in the '80s in a predominantly white region of the country and in a house where racist jokes were commonly told by my parents. For me, this was a very normal thing. I thought nothing of it. At sixteen I had a job with an African American manager who I greatly loved and admired. He was by far the best and friendliest manager. Then one day while chatting with a coworker a racist comment slipped from my lips right in front of him. To this day I can think of that moment and instantly be transported back there. I can see the theater lobby. I can smell the popcorn. I can see my coworker's uniform. And most of all, I can still feel the intense pain and embarrassment I felt in that moment.
In that moment, if I could have summoned an avalanche on my own head I gladly would have. Even the memory of that moment is physically painful. Excruciatingly painful.
In cases like this, the intense feelings of guilt and shame can be beneficial, teaching us what kinds of behavior are bad for us, either socially, or emotionally. But due to how we as humans tend to "tell ourselves stories" they can also be extremely detrimental…instilling a fear of that situation. Or we warp the story, blaming others and causing stressed or broken relationships.
This pain we feel can, therefore, cause either positive or negative change in us.
This is the difference between shame and guilt. They both feel the same to us. But shame causes negative change, guilt causes positive change. Guilt says "I have done something wrong" and shame says "I AM wrong".
Thankfully, we have control over which of these we feel. The only difference between shame and guilt is how we react to the pain. Do we tell ourselves that we made a mistake and need to work to improve? Or do we tell ourselves things like "I'm no good" "I suck at that" "I ALWAYS say stupid things like that", "Nobody likes my work", "I'll never be able to do that well", "I always screw things up", "I just can't do things right"?
This kind of inner dialog is shame. It doesn't allow for growth and repair.
Guilt instead, is turning the previous statements into, "I'm not great at that. I need to improve", or, "I really hurt their feelings. I should work harder to avoid saying things like that"; "I need to stop doing that"; "I need to find a way to fix the damage I caused"; "I need some help to make this better"; or even, "I need to be ok with being less than I want to be"
These statements allow for growth and self-compassion. And the nice thing is that if we consciously tell ourselves these things, then we can open our minds up to embracing guilt instead of shame.
Are you regularly overwhelmed by shame? What things put you into a hole of self-despair?
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