Shame vs Guilt is one of the most frequent topics I address. This is partly because much of my work is done in Christian circles and “guilt” is the operative word among Western Christians. Further, as a result of our Christian heritage and DNA in the US, it’s a key facet to our cultural identity regardless of your religious background.
The Christian Background
I start with Christianity not to win converts or just because it’s where I spend most of my time. It’s also because this is where most Western culture gets its understanding of “guilt”. The first aspect of guilt relative to shame is guilt is simple.
- Guilt is
- You did something you should not have
- You didn’t do something you should have.
Guilt is simple – you did it or you didn’t. This leads to feelings of guilt but it also leads to what I can an adjectival reality – you are guilty regardless of how you “feel”. So guilt isn’t JUST a feeling. Christianity quite simply goes one step further and fixes the problem.
- If you are guilty –
- Christ suffered and died to pay the price for your guilt
- You get to go to heaven when you’re dead if you agree with all of the above.
Easy. You just have to know couple bullets. So, bottom line, Christianity (and so our US culture) almost has a historic preference of guilt relative to shame partly due to this simplicity.
WHY Do we Do What We Do is Key to understand Shame vs Guilt
Guilt never has to deal with more complicated questions like why you did whatever it was you did to begin with or what you did after you got caught doing it!! Shame, and my work as an exposer of shame is to get to the “why” or hidden motivator behind our actions, inactions, and reactions.
Taking my example from Christianity again, guilt helps you know why you are in trouble now and how to get out of it. It also reports to help you know where you’re going when you’re dead (if you follow the logic). However, it doesn’t answer complex questions like:
- How did Jesus live?
- Why did Jesus live?
- What will you do between now and the time you are dead?
- What are the implications of what he said and did while alive?
Those questions are shame questions and are much more perplexing and complicated for the church to deal with.
Guilt is a Feeling and a Description while Shame is a Motivator
As I already alluded, Guilt arises from having done something bad – or sometimes not having done something good. With guilt, you can often point to the specific instance of the origin of the guilt. I know exactly when I broke my hand in a fit of rage when my daughter rolled her eyes at me. That’s guilt. What I don’t know is why I did what I did. That’s shame – the “why” – the motivator for the bad we do or the good we don’t.
This brings up another couple of defining points I’ve already mentioned but are worth restating:
- Guilt can be a feeling – as in one can certainly feel guilty.
- Guilt can also simply be an adjective. A person can be guilty regardless if they feel if they actually did the deed in question.
- Shame is never a feeling.
- You can feel embarrassed or feel sick about something but shame is not a feeling.
- Shame is not an emotion. It is a driver that causes us to react to certain stimuli.
Shame vs Guilt: Guilt Can Lead to Good but Shame Never Will
Guilt can bring about a positive response out of a negative situation. I may decide after I pound your fist through a wall, that I will apologize to my daughter to absolve my guilt (the feelings or the adjectival sense). I may attempt to make amends by going to an anger management class or sending myself to timeout. Guilt can be a motivator for good.
Shame’s main goal is to protect you from having your weaknesses and shortcomings exposed. Shame is there to protect you – that’s its job. That doesn’t seem so bad on the surface, which is why we give it control of our lives from a fairly early age. Why wouldn’t you partner with something that seems to be looking out for you?
When someone finds out who we “really are” – that we are weak, stupid, ugly, mean, or generally imperfect – there will be pain involved. Since no one enjoys pain, our psyche has made up a defense mechanism to prevent us from experiencing that exposure or pain. When someone finds out who we really are, our worst fear may be realized. We may be abandoned.
As a result, shame will do everything in its power to keep you protected. It all sounds great. The problem is those shame insists you do to protect yourself are never things that help you become a fully function human being. This is why I insist shame is the hidden driver behind our “destructive” decisions. They are things like rage, defensiveness, blame, narcissists, racism, perfectionism and most any other “ism” you care to throw in there.
Personal Example: Pastor Breaks Hand in Fit of Rage
Lying and Hiding
When I took the pulpit the Sunday morning guilty of breaking my hand in a fit of rage, shame made some suggestions. I was clearly guilty – the cast gave that away. But the congregation wouldn’t know why. Shame suggested I lie when people ask me what happened. Of course this would be an act for which I would later be “guilty” again meaning shame would have to help protect me from being exposed as a lier also. Shame may have also asked me to avoid the situation altogether and call in sick. This is a softer lie that I may more easily rationalize and feel less guilty about.
Worse, and more common, shame helps us find someone to blame.
The most famous and first recorded scene of blame in the bible is after Adam is discovered by God. Adam is hiding (shame) because he’s afraid. Ironically, when he confesses why he’s afraid he doesn’t say it’s because he knows he’s in big trouble (guilt). He says he’s afraid because he’s naked. He’s vulnerable and exposed to be seen by God for who he really is. When he finds himself here he starts with hiding (as mentioned above). But when that doesn’t work he turns to blame. He blames both his wife and the one who gave him his wife!
I could have blamed my daughter for her behavior, my boss for stressing me out, my parents for the way they raised me, or the congregation for not praying for me hard enough. In any event, blame diverts the attention of those who had been looking at my shortcomings by calling into question the shortcomings of others.
Defensiveness and Anger
Another resource shame offers is defensiveness. This is a favored response for many. When I’m asked why happened to my hand I can say, rather aggressively, none of your damn business!! Or I could react with pride like I’m really tough for breaking through a door with my fist. The options for shame are limitless as long as it protects me from feeling exposed.
Therefore, guilt acknowledges that you’ve typically hurt someone else while shame aims to protect you from letting the truth out about your inner ugliness even if that means hurting someone else or hurting yourself in a way that’s less publically obvious.
Going Back Christianity – Jesus is Confronted with Shame But Was Guilty of Nothing
While the death of Jesus may have absolved our guilt, it’s in his life that we find how to struggle against this inner demon and live a life not motivated by shame. We also see where shame originates – in self-hatred. Jesus shows us the way, so to speak, by being “the way”. The main point of Jesus may not have been him showing us the way we are going when we are dead (a guilt issue) but the way we are to live while we are alive (a shame issue).
The most dramatic example of this came near the end of his life:
Matthew 27 12When He was accused by the chief priests and the elders, He gave no answer. 13Then Pilate asked Him, ‘Don’t You hear the testimony they are bringing against You?’14But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge – the governor was amazed
His Response is Silence and Vulnerability
His silence is odd. Rather than taking the opportunity to defend himself or even to teach people about himself, Jesus said nothing. Ironically in saying nothing, Jesus was doing a better job describing himself and “the way” than any self-defense could accomplish. After all, blame, defensiveness and anger are hallmarks of a life fully manipulated by shame not the way out of it.
Instead, he offers himself, defenseless and vulnerable to the authorities.
His Response is Compassion and Empathy
When Jesus finally speaks it’s at the cross and people are casting lots for his clothes. As words finally come from his mouth they are not defensiveness and blame or any of the weapons I would reach for. When he speaks it’s with empathy and compassion – the two things that kill shame. Forgive them father, they don’t know what they are doing.
Why Jesus Matters
As I mentioned above, I don’t throw Jesus into this to get converts but to use as an example. When I was an atheist, this is what drove me to Jesus. It took me decades to begin to “believe” in Jesus, but because of what I saw, I decided to follow him regardless of what I believed. I saw a man who was not manipulated by shame and I knew that was a life well lived.
Shame vs Guilt: In Summary
Guilt speaks to something you did while shame speaks to something you ARE.
Shame speaks to your understanding of your own soul – which is why shame is working so hard to prevent that ugly from being seen by the world. So the difference between shame and guilt always begins with what the voice of each is saying to you:
|You DID something bad…
|You ARE bad
|You SAID something stupid…
|You ARE stupid
|You MADE a mistake…
|You ARE a mistake
|You ACTED like a jerk…
|You ARE a jerk
|You ARE a liar
Are the two related? Absolutely! If you do certain acts (such as lie), you can begin to see yourself as a “bad” person – a “liar”. You can begin to see yourself as dishonest in your core (shame). The problem is, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy such that you will lie all the more because it becomes part of your identity and self-understanding. In my book I call this the shame spiral.
Remember, the voice of guilt can actually be helpful if it assists in a restoration or growth process. Guilt can set in motion a process of making amends or self-improvement. Guilt can even begin a process of asking shame questions – asking the “why” questions. One can attempt to understand why one berates people in order to prevent it from happening in the future. Conversely, shame will never hand you a helpful tool to aid in your defense or your isolation. It will only hand you relationship toxins.
We need to begin to listen specifically to the language you are hearing about ourselves. If that language is specific to an action or event, it may be guilt challenging us to address whatever the particular action or event was – which can be a good thing!
However, if you begin to hear language that is more specific to who you are as a person, that’s shame talking. Dealing with shame is a much more challenging situation. However, it is all the more critical to address shame as it is likely manipulating many of your actions in self destructive ways. This is especially true since it operates as a hidden driver behind your destructive decisions.