When it comes to treatment, one of the first exercises I put clients through is to attempt to distinguish between shame and guilt. It’s critical to me that they dig deep and think about the differences between the two emotions. See, the labels we place upon our life are the labels that will eventually define us. Shame and guilt are similar, but shame can be deadly, while earned guilt can be quite healthy and useful.
Shame is deadly because it speaks to the very nature of a person. Guilt, however, is more about a behavior. It may be getting cliché to talk about judging behaviors rather than people, but it’s still true: We all have done things that we really would have preferred not to have, looking back. Those things, though, aren’t who we are. Those things we’ve done may have hurt ourselves or others, but they don’t make us “bad” people. Perhaps we should feel guilt about those bad things, but we shouldn’t allow that guilt to infiltrate our souls and corrode them into being shameful about the people we are.
There’s always a chance to rebuild. Outside of organic illness, every single person on this planet can choose to build a life. However, when we are ashamed of who we are, we will behave in such a way as to reinforce the concept of the “bad person.” I heard someone say that they took a huge dip in the “F*** it bucket” and I though it was both funny and true: Too often, when someone believe that they are unworthy of love and respect, then he or she throws their hands in the air and slides into Hell with both feet. “F*** it,” someone might say before guzzling down their first drink in ten years.
But, I think it may be a better approach to not define ourselves in any way. Really, we should do what we’re best at without expectation of any outcome. It’s hard; I’ll be the first to admit that there are many days when I want to dip into the F it bucket. Right action can appear pointless because it can feel as though no one cares. Because it can feel that way, if was ashamed of the person I am, it would be easy to give up and slip and slide into Hell. But, while I’ve done things for which I believe I’ve atoned and that I did feel guilty about, I’ve gotten to a place in my soul where I’m good with the person I am. I may not be a best-seller, but I do the best I can.
Distinguishing between shame and guilt is critical to health. Shame speaks to the person, while guilt speaks to a behavior. Give it some thought, separate them, and perhaps you’ll see that you’re ok…