Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Shame... guilt... two concepts that get confused when talking about our feelings. What is the difference between shame and guilt? Guilt is the result when our actions don't match our values. When we do something that goes against our belief system, our inner voice tells us that we have breached our own boundaries. We feel guilt as a result of that action, often coupled with regret. These feelings are a warning to us, a red light, that tells us that our actions are not acceptable to ourselves. They may be an indicator of impending danger or consequences. Guilt, when earned, is a healthy reminder by our conscience to more closely monitor our own behavior. Guilt says, "What I have done is not okay." It is a judgement of our actions.

Shame says, "I am not okay." It is a judgement of us. Shame arises when we have suffered grave humiliation at the hands of another. We may not recognize that we have been shamed. We may have been too small when the incident occurred to understand the underlying message, but the message got through and we feel that we are not good enough. It can happen when a teacher calls upon a student in class who is day dreaming and doesn't know the question, let alone the answer. The teacher's cutting remark can wound that student leaving him/her feeling shamed. It can happen when a parent is having a bad day and shrieks at a child to just leave them alone.

The scars from shame are deep wounds that become triggers later in life and leave us emotionally unavailable. That wounded child in school may feel inadequate in all aspects of learning regardless of achievements. The scolded child may be unable to tolerate others anger as an adult. Shame fuels the demon, low self esteem, leading to insecurities and defense mechanisms designed to keep others at a distance.

When we are triggered as shamed adults, we react with the passion from the initial wound. We are unable to remain emotionally in the present. We cannot differentiate between that which happened long ago and that which is happening in the now. As a result of this, we can severely damage current relationships. Our inability to distinguish past events from the present causes our partners to collapse under the weight of our reactions to our triggers. We owe it to our partners to pursue recovery from shame. Learning to use our tools to empower us to overcome the prison of triggers will enhance our daily lives. We will overcome our shame, increase our self esteem, minimize our insecurities and be able to lessen our use of defense mechanisms. We do this to give ourselves the gift of emotional availability.

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