You can befriend all of your emotions.
In my post on befriending your anger, I re-framed anger as a necessary emotion that supports you in developing and maintaining your healthy self image. Now, let’s look at the emotion that I call anger’s friend or partner: shame.
I envision anger as the sentry that calmly walks the perimeter of your self-image and watches out for any challenges to what you value or to your sense of self. I envision shame as a related sentry emotion that turns inward and watches you and your behaviors so that you don’t unnecessarily challenge, offend against, or wound others.
When it’s working well, your shame helps you become a stand-up person who follows an inner code of ethics and honor — in regard to other people, certainly, but also in regard to yourself. And thankfully, when you and your shame are working well together, it won’t torment you; it will support you.
As I developed my empathic theory of emotions, I continually tripped over competing definitions of guilt and shame, and it seemed that everywhere I looked, people were defining these two words differently — and sometimes in ways that directly contradicted each other. I got really fed up, so I went to a dictionary to see what was up.
Let’s clear up this confusion before we delve more deeply into this exquisite and necessary emotion. This piece is an excerpt from my book The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You.
Guilt and Shame: What’s the difference?
In my early teens, I read a popular self-help book that branded guilt and shame as “useless” emotions. The book presented the idea that we’re all perfect, and therefore shouldn’t ever be guilt-ridden or ashamed of anything we do. That idea seemed very strange to me, so I went to the dictionary and looked up the meaning of guiltless and shameless and found that neither state was anything to celebrate.
To be guiltless means to be free of mark or experience, as if you’re a blank slate. It’s not a sign of intelligence or growth, because guiltlessness exists only in people who have not yet lived.
To be shameless means to be senseless, uncouth, and impudent. It’s a sign of being out of control, out of touch, and exceedingly self-absorbed; therefore, shamelessness lives only in people who don’t have any relational skills. Both states — guiltlessness and shamelessness — helped me understand the essential value of guilt and shame.
Is guilt an emotion?
Fascinatingly, in a dictionary definition, guilt isn’t even an emotional state at all — it’s simply the knowledge and acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Guilt is a state of circumstance: you’re either guilty or not guilty in relation to the legal or moral code you value.
You cannot feel guilty, because guilt is a concrete state — not an emotional one! Your feelings are irrelevant; if you did something wrong, you’re guilty, and it doesn’t matter if you’re happy, angry, fearful, or depressed about it. When you haven’t done something wrong, you’re not guilty.
Feelings don’t enter into the equation at all. The only way you could possibly ever feel guilty is if you don’t quite remember committing an offense (“I feel like I might be guilty, but I’m not sure.”). No, what you feel is shame.
Guilt is a factual state; shame is an emotion.
What is shame?
Shame is the natural emotional consequence of guilt and wrongdoing. When your shame is welcomed into your psyche, its powerful heat and intensity will restore your boundary when you’ve broken it yourself. However, most of us don’t welcome shame into our lives; we obscure it by saying “I feel guilty” instead of “I feel ashamed,” which speaks volumes about our current inability to identify and acknowledge our guilt, channel our appropriate shame, and make amends.
This is unfortunate because when we don’t welcome and honor our free-flowing and necessary shame, we cannot moderate our own behavior. We’ll continually do things we know are wrong, and we won’t have the strength to stop ourselves. In our never-ending shamelessness, we’ll offend and offend and offend without pause – we’ll always be guilty because nothing will wake us to our effect on the world.
If we continue to use the incorrect statement, “I feel guilty,” we’ll be unable to right our wrongs, amend our behaviors, or discover what our shame is trying to tell us – which means we’ll be unable to experience contentment (which has a special relationship with shame). If we don’t come out and correctly state, “I’m ashamed of myself,” we’ll never improve. I’ll say it again before we go deeper: guilt is a factual state, not an emotional one. You’re either guilty or not guilty. If you’re not guilty, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. However, if you are guilty, and you want to know what to do about the fact of your guilt, then you’ve got to embrace the information shame brings to you.
(From chapter 14 in The Language of Emotions)
Embracing shame as your ally
Let’s look at the specific gifts and skills that shame brings to you.
SHAME: Restoring Integrity
GIFTS: Atonement ~ Integrity ~ Conscience ~ Self-respect ~ Behavioral change
WHAT YOUR SHAME DOES: Shame arises to help you moderate your behavior and make sure that you don’t hurt, embarrass, destabilize, or dehumanize yourself or others. Shame is a tricky emotion, because most of us learned about shame by being shamed.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: The healing practice for shame is to root out inauthentic and applied shaming messages, and to encourage authentic and appropriate shame (and remorse) in yourself and others.
THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: Whose ethics and values have been disrespected? What must be made right?
Though many people suggest that shame is primarily unhealthy, it is in fact a crucial social emotion, and it’s directly connected to the empathic aspect of Concern for Others (see The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy). Shame development is essential for the development of empathy, and it’s the primary emotion that makes you honorable and capable of being a worthy relationship partner, colleague, and person.
Shame is certainly an emotion that can overwhelm you, but when you can get into a healthy empathic relationship to it, shame can be your best friend. Shame can help you live up to your internal moral code so that you can take excellent care of yourself.
Shame can also make you very sensitive socially, so that you’ll be able to stop yourself (gently and appropriately) before you say or do something wrong. Your shame will also help you make amends if you realize that you’ve hurt someone, stuck your foot in your mouth, or broken a social rule.
How well are you using the gifts of shame?
The statements below relate to the gifts of shame. How true are these statements for you?
- I have a fairly easy time changing problem behaviors or old habits
- When I make a social blunder, I have an easy time apologizing and correcting myself
- I am able to ask for help and support from others
- I can manage my intense emotions without attacking others
- I live up to my promises (or I make new agreements if I can’t live up to them)
The Gifts of Shame. These statements may seem to relate to behavioral maturity (and they do), but they’re also the gifts of shame — which help you monitor and modify your behavior. Interestingly, when your shame is working gracefully, you won’t feel it as shame. Instead, you’ll just behave in a way that makes you feel comfortable and proud of yourself.
For instance, you’ll floss because you like clean teeth (and not because you’ve been shamed into obsessive dental hygiene), you’ll avoid theft and abusiveness because they don’t feel right (and not because you’ve been shamed or terrorized out of them), and you’ll manage your intense emotions skillfully because you respect the basic human rights of others.
Though many of us have a very troubling relationship with shame because it was applied to us as punishment when we were young, shame is absolutely crucial for your social health and well-being.
An update on shame
Shame is never inauthentic or inappropriate
We can choose how we deal with shame
Related post: A supportive way to work with your shame