Guilt and shame are complicated emotions, but the difference between them is very simple:
Guilt says: I feel badly about what I did/didn’t do.
Shame says: I feel badly about who I am/who I am not.
For the most part, we know what to do with guilt. It might take us a while, but we proactively address our guilt by either acknowledging our limitations, acknowledging that we’re not perfect, or by making corrective steps to fix whatever it was that happened.
Unless, of course, you feel chronically guilty.
Chronic guilt is a big sign that there’s an underlying sense of inadequacy that you’re not ‘enough’ (i.e. I feel badly about who I am not). Chronic guilt (over years and years) is the same as shame.
Unlike guilt, shame doesn’t come with such an easy fix formula.
It’s hard to know what to do when you feel ashamed of something — it’s hard to know that you even feel ashamed in the first place. Shame breeds secrecy, and the secrecy breeds isolation. So many people secretly carry shame about something that has exactly nothing to do with who they are.
Shame also attracts punishment and compensatory behaviors. If you feel like you’re not good enough, you either have to do way more than the average person does or be punished. It’s all exhausting.
More importantly, it’s all unnecessary.
If any of this is ringing a bell for you, consider using this therapist locator to explore why you’re feeling that you don’t deserve to live a full, engaged and drama-free life. My guess is that you actually do deserve to move forward with the lightness that comes from letting go of shame and false inadequacies. In fact, if it were up to me, I’d get everyone who’s ever felt so much as an inkling of shame to go to therapy. But it’s not up to me.
It’s up to you.