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1415 W 51st St
Austin, TX, 78756
United States

512/663-9464

Offering counseling in central Austin to adults struggling with painful relationships, upsetting changes, ineffective communication, unwanted emotions, low spirits and anxious thinking. Therapy for the heart & mind, curiosity required.  

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Guilt vs. Shame

Ellen Lindsey

I listened to a "Two Guys on Your Head" podcast today. ("Two Guys on Your Headis a psychology podcast, almost ala "Car Talk," but without the heavy, infectious laughter.)  It was a piece on the difference between guilt and shame.  They suggested that guilt and shame are hardly discernible based on physiological markers, but are very different in terms of their objects.  Guilt is produced when we feel bad about something we did, or, did not do.  Shame is produced when we feel bad about who we are, our worth, our character, our abilities or disabilities.  I often speak with clients about shame and how it is the all-time worst-offending emotion that crosses our threshold. We tend to defend the most intensely when affronted by shame, whether through blame, emotional implosion, addictive consumption, self-harm, or rage.  Guilt, while physiologically essentially the same, does not produce such extreme reactions.  Guilt is focused on the something-I-did-or-didn't-do, and, therefore, inherently has a fix.  If I did or didn't do something, I can get a do-over, give an apology, offer a substitute, and generally learn from the experience and/or make things better.  If the only difference between these two is the way we are viewing the situation, we could practice taking a different perspective.  The next time you feel ashamed, notice it.  Notice what inherent thing-that-is-wrong-with-you that your mind is focussed on.  Then, step back.  Run around to the other side.  Now, notice what is the action that you did or didn't do that you feel bad about?  Consider three ways you might counteract that, either through taking another action, making a heartfelt apology, or resolving to learn.  Do any one of those three things with self-compassion, affirming all the while that you are human, and therefore imperfect like the rest of us primates.  Of course you feel bad sometimes!  You are on this planet, walking on two legs with a limbic brain, aren't you?