Guilt and Shame

June 24, 2014

Posted by AmySanderMontanez at 10/11/2011 7:52 AM | Add Comment

Now here’s a topic that might need a few weeks of writing to deal with adequately!  However, several readers have asked that I address this topic, so here goes.

In very abbreviated versions, here are some working definitions of guilt and shame.

Guilt is the feeling we have when we’ve done something wrong.  We know we’ve behaved in a way that is against our own code of ethics, values, and beliefs, and we experience the feeling of guilt, which can sometimes looks like remorse.  We feel badly and usually want to make things better.  In mature and evolved people, when one behaves badly, there is a heart felt apology.  Often forgiveness is asked for, followed by a true change of behavior, which I call repentance.  This behavioral change is not just to win back someone’s favor or to smooth the waters.  Someone who is responsibly guilty changes their behavior, and ultimately their heart, because they want to be a better, more conscious person.  They do not want to hurt others or themselves in the same way again.  This is healthy guilt, and it can be a great motivator for change.  There is nothing wrong with it.  In fact, healthy guilt is a necessary component to becoming part of any society.  Healthy guilt helps us to remember that we are connected to many other people in our lives.  It helps us remember that what we do has an impact on others.  People who don’t feel healthy guilt are sociopaths.  Sociopaths are those among us that feel no remorse and have no empathy for others.  They are incapable of being truly connected to anyone else.

Shame is the sense that at the core of our being, we are bad,wrong,stupid, or crazy.  It is an experience of being flawed.  Shame leaves us feeling unworthy of belonging.  It makes us want to hide our true selves.  Instead of being a motivator of change, shame often induces the flight or fright response; it either freezes us in our tracks and makes us want to hide, or it charges our adrenalin up and makes us want to come out swinging.  Additionally, once someone is caught up in shame, they are more likely to be self-destructive.  They believe they are bad and they feel powerless to change that.  Shame is often accompanied by fear, blame, and isolation.

In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t)  Brene’ Brown, Ph.D., helps the reader understand shame by using the metaphor of a petri dish, like the kind you used in science class.  Put shame in a petri dish, cover it with fear, blame, and disconnection, and it grows exponentially.  That makes a perfect environment for shame to blossom!  Pair shame with courage, (speaking your truth) empathy, and connection, and it does not thrive nearly as well!

I hope these short descriptions have you thinking!  Here are some questions I will address in future blogs.  What are the external influences of shame in our culture?  How can we teach appropriate guilt without shaming children?  Why have religions had such a difficult time distinguishing between shame and guilt and how can they change that?  How is shame used in unhealthy adult relationships to repress and manipulate a partner?

Feel free to send in your own questions.  I will continue to blog about this important topic.  Also, Brene’ Brown is a featured speaker on Ted Talks (  I just love her presentation on Women and Shame!  Enjoy!


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